I am not a gardener:
A red bird lands
on a dead branch
of the ivy covered tree
deer decimated rose
that grows by the rock wall
and everywhere, ivy inches;
it infests the hosta.
Her friend Louie, a landscape wizard, tells her that, as a gardener, she’s a wonderful English teacher.
Oh, he doesn’t say it like that–not Louie, gentle genius that he is, a man who nurtures people in the same kind and patient way he nurtures plants and flowers. They walk through the gardens around his home on a hot August afternoon. She exclaims at every turn–bold, dramatic flowers here; around this corner, shy shady blossoms. Louie has clever statuary intermingled perfectly in his plantings–whimsical stone animals, re-purposed ironwork. Out back, water burbles in a rock-bordered mini-pond, complete with lily pads.
They rest on a weathered bench. Louie, who has been working in the beautiful yard all morning–she interrupted when she pulled up his steep stone driveway–takes a blue bandanna from his pocket and mops his shining, hairless scalp, a bit rosy in the summer sun.
“Where’s your hat?” she asks, automatically, then adds, “God, Louie; I can’t even keep my lawn mowed.”
He pulls a soft baseball cap from the pocket of his khaki cargo shorts and plops it on his pinking pate.
“You know,” he says, slowly, “I couldn’t grade an essay to save my life.”
She gets it. In the land of gardening, she is a landscape loser.
Oh, she tries. Each spring since they moved into the English property–the English family lived there for 54 years, and the whole community still refers to her home as Bob English’s house–she has started out strong. The backyard is bordered with hosta, deeply rooted, and somehow impervious to the roving neighborhood deer. She shovels and digs through the tenacious ivy that is everywhere, chunking up whole plants and root systems.
She takes her gleanings to the stone patio, and cuts them apart with an old kitchen knife, removing invader parts, and spends the afternoon transplanting them in front, by the tree where the ivy has been pulled up, uprooted, the one truly ivy-free spot in their sprawling double lot. She plants hosta–full green, variegated green and white, acid green with blue green borders.
Neighbors stop by while she is butt-up in the dirt. She pushes her errant, disobedient hair from her face–glamour gardening, this is not–with one muddy hand, and they chat. Usually what the neighbors chat about is the former beauty of these grounds. Bob English was not only an engineering genius; he was a master gardener. His plantings were renowned; his home was a yearly spot on the haute monde garden tour.
She peers up from where she sits in the dirt, peers at her friendly neighbor through a muddy bang, and she promises herself that her yard will be at least presentable this year.
So she plants the hosta–and they take hold. They perk up! They thrive! She watches them for two weeks, and declares a victory: the deer don’t touch these. She is going to have a beautiful hosta patch with waving stalks of purple blooms, which, imitating Louie, she will use in bouquets as exclamation points. The bouquets will be entirely from her own gardens—pale pink roses from the wild tea rose out back, brown-eyed susans, coneflowers, frilly ferns, wild blooming things that add drama and grace.
She will, she thinks, have cut flowers in her house all during the summer. She will have rustic bouquets in mason jars in her office; she will share the endless bounty with her colleagues, who will exclaim at the artistry involved.
And then she gets up the next morning, and finds, under the shade tree out front, what looks like a small sea of green brushcuts. The deer had just been waiting for her to get cocky.
It’s not just the hosta. They’ve eaten her tea roses; they’ve eaten her impatiens. The sweet potato vines she lovingly planted to trail over the rock retaining wall have disappeared.
She throws her gardening gloves onto the old bench and stomps her size elevens.
Then the rains come and the grass in the yards grows deep and thick. They get home from work late and throw dinner on; by the time the dishes are done, it’s too dark to mow, or it’s raining, or the grass is soaked from that day’s deluge. The grounds grow a little bit unkempt; the house, except for the cars in the carport, might look a little bit abandoned.
The neighbors, when they walk by, aren’t quite as cordial as they were before. They don’t stop to chat about former garden glory. They look at the grass; they look at her; they keep walking.
She takes the electric hedge clipper, on a finally clear, dry night, and starts to trim the wild hedges and saws through the industrial strength extension cord. The shock turns off all the power in the house.
“But I’m all right,” she tells her husband. “Thank God, right?”
She takes his muttering, as he stomps down the cellar stairs to fix the fuse, as effusive agreement.
She hangs the offending hedge clippers in the car port. They are gone, stolen, in the morning.
She is doomed to fail in the garden category.
But there is one little triumph. In the backyard: the cleome patch. Their first summer, when Martin mowed, she noticed that he circled one odd green volunteer that sprouted up mid-yard. She asked him about it; she and their son, 22 or so then, had come out to investigate.
“I think that’s something,” Martin said, “like some kind of flower or something. Something GOOD.”
She looked at the splayed and fringe-y leaves and snorted.
“I think,” she said, “it’s marijuana.”
Her son looked at her, startled, and she added quickly, “Or at least it reminds me of pictures of marijuana plants I’ve seen in textbooks.”
Martin insisted on letting it mature; she agreed reluctantly, and of course he was right. It grew into a bold and stalky cleome, with firecracker blooms that changed and deepened color throughout the summer. It broadcast its seed, and the next year there were three plants.
This year, she carefully mows around a volunteer cleome patch with twenty, thirty, forty joyous plants. These, the deer truly don’t seem to like. These, when Louie comes to visit, he finds wonderful.
“Save me some seeds,” he says, as they sit on her patio, sipping iced tea and ignoring milkweed, dandelions, and rampant bishop’s weed.
“Yeah,” she mentions casually to her friends, “I’m drying some seeds for Louie.”
Says it like one who knows and understands flowers, who communes and colludes with plants.
Says it, and savors a tiny moment of triumph in her awkward stumble through lifelong gardening gaffes.