I grew up spoiled by beautiful lawns surrounding me. Both of my parents had gardens, but Dad also landscaped and diligently tended each tree. The care he gave to our one-acre property rivaled the tedious care that strict English teachers give to marking grammar errors, or that car buffs give to their spotless antique engines.
Our yard featured birches, mountain ash, various maples, spruce, tulip, and yew trees. Not to mention rhododendron, azaleas, burning bushes, and a rock garden. Along the retaining wall, offering privacy, emerald green arborvitae evergreens lined our driveway like friendly sentinels.
Not only did Dad work our yard, he volunteered at the elementary school I attended (after kindergarten). Besides being the school board treasurer, he did all their mowing and landscaping. More than a hobby, more than community service, it was his passion.
When I was eight, Dad had a swimming pool built in our back yard. Not just a plain ordinary, rectangular, cement hole-in-the-ground, painted turquoise. This could have been a nature preserve. The pool was kidney bean-shaped, painted pale moss green, surrounded by layers of stone walls, flowers, and a waterfall cascading down rocks into the pool. Plus more stone layers of burgeoning phlox, asters, and shrubs, framing a brick patio and Mexican fire pit.
Gorgeous. We had great fun swimming, too. Lots of pool parties over the years. Swarming with friends, family, and neighbors. With cook-outs and roasted marshmallows. Now that I think about it, I’m surprised we were allowed to swim and eat there. It was that pristine.
Dad had the help of professional landscapers, but providing TLC for lawns was the kind of thing he thrived on. And still does. Creating beauty in his own yard and, now that he’s retired, for others all over town. More on that later.
When we moved to the country, Dad had ten acres to work with. A landscaper’s delight! Mom had a huge vegetable garden with a fence to keep out deer and rabbits. In addition, our space included a barn, horse pasture, fences, fields, and wooded areas. Apple trees offered up their tasty wares in autumn. Bordering the house, patio, and the long driveway stood an array of box elders, Norway maples, black cherry, and oak trees. Rose of Sharon and hydrangeas contributed a beauty of their own.
Since the yard was Dad’s domain–his baby, actually–he didn’t require us to tend it with him. In fact, all those acres offered him time alone, stress relief, and the chance to revitalize. Four kids helping him pull weeds and wade through well-tended greenery would not have been peaceful. Or welcome. Results could’ve been disastrous.
We kids had other responsibilities where we proved more useful and couldn’t tread on the flowers, such as animal care, barn chores, and housework. I also helped Mom pick beans and tomatoes. Plus, Dad and my two brothers took advantage of the best backyard tree to build a fort together.
I had a collie and raised 2 other dogs to be Leader Dogs, plus nurtured a goat and a lamb. Through 4-H, my sister Carol prepared horses for various competitions. My brother Jake had a pony (with a little cart for pulling up and down the driveway) and a German shepherd. My brother Dave raised goats and rabbits for the county fair. We also had another dog, numerous outdoor cats, and, somewhere along the way, goldfish and gerbils. With all those animals, who has time for gardening?
Dad rented ten acres from a farmer who grew alfalfa for our horses. When I looked out the window, I could revel in the view, soak in all there was of country living–without having to do the work of making it look that way.
I like gardens the way I like farms. I love gazing out my window at them, soaking in their beauty: rolling green hills, measured rows of corn and wheat. Smells of mowed hay and barnyards. All part of the country experience.
My idea of country living is to rent out the land to farmers but live in the middle of it for the view.
Whether garden or farm, I don’t want to be on my hands and knees in the dirt. Besides, I can’t always tell the difference between weeds and seedlings. Nor do I want to get up at 5am, milk cows, slop hogs, or exercise horses that don’t even like me. (They knew who was boss and it wasn’t me.)
I learned early on that I did not inherit Dad’s or Mom’s green thumbs. Under my care, plants withered and died, as if racing to be put out of their misery. I’d rather macrame a plant holder than manage a plant. And I don’t like doing macrame.
I can’t keep plants alive any longer than those goldfish you win at fun fairs. If you want to be my friend, don’t ever give me a plant as a gift.
Besides that, I actually love dandelions and those little blue things that pop up in the grass. While others may swoop to yank them up to rescue their lawns from such ruthless invaders, I relish the spots of color. Can true landscapers love that which is considered a weed by everybody else? That’s another reason why I’ll never qualify as a gardener.
Fortunately, in my adult life, wherever Tim and I lived, the next door neighbors had beautiful gardens. First there was Jill, who couldn’t leave her flowers alone even after a long day at work. She’d pull weeds on her way from the car to the house. She could spot a cocklebur or a sowthistle a mile away. Unlike me, she definitely knew the difference between weeds and seedlings, between Creeping Charlie and English ivy.
Later, we moved next door to Rick. Same thing. An eerie obsession with anything botanical. Yet these are the kind of neighbors to have if you want that gorgeous view out your window, or from your back yard.
However, when my kids were little, I had a big long list of “shoulds.” One of them was: “Kids should have the experience of caring for growing things.” Not just pets, but plants.
Yes, I had to tackle the role of gardener with my kids. To give them the gardening experience. I was full of high hopes and good intentions. Dad was my consultant, though he lived five hours away. I planned my flower beds, the location of beans and tomatoes, even watermelon and pumpkins. And sunflowers.
So throughout spring and summer, the kids and I planted seeds, bought and transplanted annuals from Stein’s, watered, weeded, and picked beans. For some reason, the watermelons never grew, but the sunflowers shot up six feet tall and the miniature pumpkins were cute for a fall display. We sprouted colorful rows of red salvia and marigolds that cheered us all summer long. We also had a rhubarb patch, handy for strawberry-rhubarb pies. (It was already growing there when we moved in.)
At one point, I wanted to create a sunflower garden “house” with the kids, but truthfully, the rhubarb patch was more my style. It required absolutely no effort other than cutting off rhubarb from time to time.
Was it fulfilling to show my children how to nurture plants? Fulfilling doesn’t like the right word to use for my efforts to keep plants alive. Duty fits better. Or penance for something.
Did the kids benefit? Probably. In intangible ways. They might not even remember it. They preferred playing in the sandbox. And, I confess, we usually had more weeds than flowers. Because we’d get busy doing other things . . . like turning the sandbox into a swamp or building sandcastles. Throwing tie dye parties. Making potato head characters.
We moved out of Milwaukee when the kids were 13, 11, 7, and 5, and left “gardening with kids” behind. I had accomplished my goal. Since we moved into a big old Victorian home, though, I figured it needed flower borders. So for the first time, I planted daffodil and tulip bulbs, plus irises from Dad. Wow, that was exhausting! Again, this activity was more along the lines of a “should” than a delight. Especially when squirrels or rabbits invited themselves over and dug up bulbs.
But overall, I was happy with the results. Surely perennials are the way to go for someone who doesn’t like to do annual planting. I talked my dad into bringing his gardening tools in spring to prepare the soil, and midway through the season to help weed and anything else he was inspired to do.
After all, why should I deny him any of the pleasure he gets from performing such tasks?
But even with Dad’s help from time to time, I didn’t have the gumption to be faithful to my garden. The situation was–and still is–so dire that when my friend Sue, a Master Gardener, comes over, I have to weed first or offer a disclaimer. Not that she complains, but I know when I’m in superior company. So does my garden.
Speaking of annuals . . . my husband and I began the annual argument about my flowers. Due to my lack of diligence, my garden took on overgrown jungle-like qualities. With other financial priorities, hiring a gardener was out of the question. Periodically, I hired one of the kids to help out, but they had grown to dislike gardening as much as I did. (Can’t fool them!) Tim wants me to give up so-called gardening altogether and plant grass he can easily mow. But I haven’t succumbed to that notion yet.
I really don’t know why. Maybe just to be stubborn. Or maybe there’s just a smidge of hope left that I will still do something worthy of this little piece of land.
All that to say, I have a huge appreciation for gardeners and their work. I’ve gotten a sense of what it’s like not only to keep plants alive, but enable them to thrive. At least with basic daffodils, tulips, marigolds, and sunflowers.
Dad still works his magic every summer–with trees and shrubs unknown to me, such as Kousa dogwood and Korean spice viburnum. They are all at home in Dad’s yard, loved and nourished among the vibrant purple, pink, and periwinkle blossoms of bee balm, astilbe, and asters.
I do believe gardening is a gift and a skill. And it works best with desire and love of plants. I’m thankful for the gardeners of the world, especially Dad. You have blessed me with much beauty!
Do you have any gardening successes or horror stories?
Add your comments below. I’d love to hear from you!
P.S. Next . . . meet 2 Master Gardeners who work side by side, spurring each other on in beautification projects all over town.