Every time spring rolls around, with its budding daffodils and hyacinths popping out like the guests who arrived too early to the party, I think about the women in my family, their excitement for the season, and their love of gardening.
Growing up, I can’t remember a female in my big southern family who didn’t know the name of every flower, tree, shrub—or even weed—that one could find in any manicured garden anywhere or on the side of a quiet country road. They were botanical know-it-alls. The kind you wanted on your team if playing Trivial Pursuit when you got asked the “Science and Nature” question—yes, we’re one of those families who still play that game. If the question had anything to do with any flower, tree, or wild critter in nature, then the other team could throw up their hands, for your victory lap was as good as made.
My great-grandmother, Idolene, (who we called “I.E.”, because “Idolene” was too hard for my mother to say as a toddler) was at one time the matriarch, the “grande dame of the garden,” in our family. By the time I knew her, she was a widow and lived with her daughter, my great-aunt Emma, in a big brick house on Dresden Drive in the Brookhaven area of Atlanta. My grandparents, Dot and Papa–for you non-southerners, that’s pronounced “Paw-Paw”–lived next door, the two properties separated by a shallow creek..
I loved those yards as a child, and I spent hours of imaginary playtime in them jumping over the shallow trickle of water in the creek bed, swinging from the low lying branches of the magnolia tree that grew on the creek’s edge, or at times, letting one of the many yellow ducklings that Dot gave me for several Easters paddle about in the shallow water. Grandparents, especially mine, did things like buy little kids Easter ducks back then without even a thought.
I.E., five feet tall, adorned with her big hat and gloves and dressed in a smocked apron that was certain to have shriveled tissues in the front pockets, was always hunched over in some corner of her yard. Her prized azaleas made a colorful parade of magenta, pink and white around the perimeter of her front lawn and bordered the entire walkway onto the front porch with their panorama. The first half of April her yard was so magnificent it hurt your eyes to look at it, and at least one third of our family’s slide projector presentations when I was young were narrated, “Oh, there’s I.E.’s yard, look at those azaleas.” But those photos were something I just couldn’t fully appreciate as an eight-year-old.
When the house and its big yard finally got to be too much work for I.E. and Emma, they moved into an apartment on Peachtree Road. Thankfully, I.E. had a tiny backyard there to continue on with her love of flowers. When you stepped out of the back door of the modest apartment, it was as if you stepped into an English garden fantasia. The walkway from her back door to the sidewalk was lined with flowering perennials of every color and size imaginable. I remember trying to get to that sidewalk, having to dodge the butterflies and the bees who flew right in my face, drunk from their floral ambrosia. I hated those bees. They were probably the reason I never fulled valued my great grandmother’s garden like I should have—I was just trying to get past that frightful “buzzing” unscathed.
Her neighbors, like the Bledsoe’s who were famous for dropping off cheese straws and Mrs. Bledsoe’s lemon poundcake at Christmas time, were her biggest groupies. They would walk by I.E’s garden daily and marvel at its display, complimenting her as if they were first time visitors. Her tiny garden behind that apartment continued to be an overgrown floricultural masterpiece until sadly she died of a sudden stroke when I was thirteen. We may not entertain ourselves with family slideshows anymore but, “she sure could grow a garden too,” is still said by my mother every year at the Thanksgiving dinner table– right after “How’s the oyster dressing? I.E. could always make the best oyster dressing.”
My grandmother, Dot, carried on her mother’s great love for things in the dirt. She too had a yard full of beautiful offerings. In her early 50’s, Dot, being somewhat of an eccentric character, had an epiphany one day that being a wife and mother were no longer on her “to-do” list, so after thirty something years of marriage, she suddenly divorced my Papa. Years later, however, Dot did remarry and moved onto four acres of property in Powder Springs, Georgia. Her second husband passed away shortly afterwards, and Dot was left alone to manage all four acres by herself—the mowing, the planting, the tree trimming, the gardening—she did it all.
I spent several weeks in the summer time and many spring breaks with her out at that house in the country. With so much land, there was no limit to what she could grow. Her flowers were breathtaking, and her vegetable garden was spectacular. I remember rows and rows of collards, tomatoes, and cucumbers. I think we must have eaten pickled cucumbers every time we sat down at the kitchen table at her house, and I know I ate drippy tomato sandwiches one summer until my mouth broke out from the acid of those salty, mayonnaise-laden delicacies—still, to this day, it’s the best sandwich on earth in my book.
One June day when Dot and I walked down the road from her house to look at Sweetwater Creek, (because that’s just what we did, “look at it”) I noticed a beautiful, but weedy flower growing wild along the shoulder of the road.
“Queen Anne’s Lace,” Dot was quick to identify.
“That would make a pretty wedding flower,” I said, looking at the white filigreed pedals that were everywhere.
Then Dot announced it like it was a rule, “Well you better get married in June then ’cause that’s when it blooms.”
Ten years later I got married on June 11th carrying the most beautiful bouquet down the aisle adorned with big clusters of Queen Anne’s Lace, remembering that very conversation with my grandmother and providing me with a very special memory. To this day, every time I see Queen Anne’s Lace growing on the side of the road with its frilly white flowers and the purple dot in the middle of the blossom where legend has it Queen Anne of England lost a drop of blood from pricking her finger, I think of that walk with Dot, and I’m thankful.
My grandmother passed away a few years ago, but my mother, Joan, adopted the same obsession with flowers, and is currently the reigning Queen Mother of the garden. We have entire phone conversations about what color some bush is, what’s blooming, or if the predicted late frost is going to kill something that we have been anxiously awaiting. This happens almost every year and causes devoted southern gardeners to take to their bed. When my grandmother was still alive, she would begin a phone chain of alarm if the weather report predicted a late frost. First she’d call my mother, then me, then my uncle and so on…and we’d jump into action covering our precious azaleas or hydrangeas with anything we had, even if it meant we had to rip it off a bed.
I will admit I’ve used “the good sheets,” with the hand-stitched lace along the border, to shield something in my yard from a frost, and had not a twinge of guilt over it. To be honest, I probably like my azaleas better than some people who have slept on “the good sheets” in my guest room anyway.
Southern women are serious about their flowers. My mother still tells the story of when my teenage cousin, Stan, was staying with us one summer, and in an effort to get the barbeque grill’s fire going decided to douse it with “a little gasoline” catching pretty much everything in the backyard and on the patio on fire, including my mother’s precious peonies. Poor Stan was thankfully not injured, but he never lived that one down, and my mother kept a little mark on her nephew’s record for the rest of his life. To this day, when she tells the story and gets to the part where she has to mention her scorched peonies she still takes a moment of silence and shakes her head in pain like the event happened yesterday.
Joan was even protective of her plants and flowers that were in the house. At one point in the 70’s, when terrariums were all the rage, my mother had a huge one in our formal living room. It was a monstrous, clear plastic dome full of tiny versions of house plants and african violets. She would take the lid off and fuss over it like it was a newborn that had just come home from the hospital. It sat on its own base that was a bit unsteady and stood next to the window for sun. I do not remember EVER walking into that room as a child that I didn’t hear my mother’s voice behind me, “Be careful! Don’t you knock over that terrarium!” I always wondered what would happen to the person who knocked over the terrarium…luckily I never found out.
To this day my mother will come to my house and “inspect” my plants like she’s an agent from the United States Department of Agriculture. I see her walking over to the table in my kitchen, and I tense up because I know I’m about to get chided.
“This orchid is dry as a bone,” she’ll say as she removes her finger from its soil. “And what happened to this poor thing?”
Some mothers give the white glove test—mine gives the gardening glove test.
When I was first married my husband and I lived in San Diego. It was there that my own interest in gardening began to emerge. The weather was 72 degrees, sunny and breezy about 364 days out of the year, and the soil was nice, light and sandy. They were the perfect conditions for growing anything. If you planted a rose bush, it soon looked like a rose bush in a gardening magazine. If you planted a tomato plant you soon had more tomatoes than you could eat. Not knowing this, I planted four.
When the tomatoes started ripening, our kitchen looked like an episode of I Love Lucy had there ever been one where Lucy grew tomatoes. I had to teach myself canning so I could make salsa out of most of them just to use them all, and this was after eating as many tomato sandwiches as the pH of my mouth could stand.
I thought that successful gardening was so easy!
Then we moved back to Atlanta.
I quickly learned that between the dense clay soil, too much rain, not enough rain, oppressive summer temperatures, humidity, mildew, black spot, root rot, and fungi it was a lot more work to grow anything in the South. Not to even mention the critters such as June bugs, hornworms, and slugs eating everything you planted. And then, as you were trying to pick these off your plants, there were other pests trying to eat you. My attempts to grow anything in my yard the first few years was thwarted by any combination of these obstacles, and I didn’t even mention the four-legged creatures that do their part. Turtles LOVE tomatoes, just in case you’re wondering…
One summer I yielded one tomato. One.
I stood over the sink and in four quick bites ate the most delicious tomato sandwich made from that one small tomato. In the end I calculated between the bedding plants, tomato cages, stakes, soil conditioners, fertilizers, and time and effort that that one sandwich cost me roughly about $300. As anyone who knows me will tell you, I’m not good at math, but even I could calculate that those were four very expensive bites. Even then, as stubborn as I am, I still tried it another three or four summers before I admitted complete defeat. Now in the summer, I just drive to the farm stand by my house, talk myself through my envy, and bring home a bag of their tomatoes and everyone is happy –well, except for maybe the turtles.
As far as the rest of my yard, I’m still not giving up. I, like all other dedicated southern gardeners, have to herd the butterflies in my stomach this time of year, so I don’t get overly anxious and start planting too soon. I want to run to the nursery and load up on bedding plants and seeds. And while mentioning it, I’m pretty sure there is an official disorder for what I experience physically and emotionally when I’m at a plant nursery—it’s an odd combination of panic attack and euphoria that can drain my checking account like a gambling addiction.
As soon as March arrives, I want to sit around my mailbox and plant my smiley-faced little pansies and fill the old wash pot of Dot’s in my back yard with cyclamen and ferns. I can’t wait to greet my elephant ear sprouts with joy like an old friend I haven’t seen all winter long. But I.E. always said to never plant anything until after April 15th, and I know doing so only entices nature to have one last cold snap out of spite–and then there I am in the front yard, in my pajamas, covering everything with “the good sheets” again.
I’m grateful I have my inherited love of all things growing. I’m proud that when my grandmother announced, “Ewww-we, look at that forsythia. Id’nt it beautiful?” to no one in particular as we rode in the car that I listened to her and took the time to actually look at the sunny-colored bush with its leggy branches and make a note of it. It’s from such little comments by the women in my family that I learned the names of the trees and flowers that I love today and developed an appreciation of their beauty and the hard work it takes, by someone, to grow them. I have a forsythia bush in my yard now, and although it’s a young plant with years to go before it will impress anyone, every year at this time when its little yellow shoots emerge, I know my grandmother would be proud.
I have two daughters of my own now, and I can only hope that as they get older they will spend less time on their smart phones and spend more time with their hands in the dirt appreciating how fulfilling and satisfying it is. I hope that they feel excited when the cherry trees and the Japanese magnolias start budding and want to hurry up and plant their seedlings, but they remember to wait until April 15th. I hope their orchids in their kitchens are dry one day so I can point it out to them. And one day when they see a wild flower growing on the side of the road they will remember me naming it for them—and to their future Trivial Pursuit partners I say, “you’re welcome.”