Patience Learned Again

I was so proud of the roses and they looked awful: black spotted yellowed leaves, withered blossoms, twisted brown canes.

I dreaded the sight of the front garden. My wife’s happy jungle of fruits, vegetables, flowers and grasses continued to be a daily joy: what she had sown with all those fertilizers, sprays and bags of mulch and soil had yielded fabulous results.

My efforts brought the opposite. All the optimism and green thumb glories I had in the spring had sunk to a dank, dingy, grody embarrassment. A few annuals had perked up, and some strange bulbs sprouted bent green bottle washers.

But the rest of it forced me to avert my eyes. I asked garden center experts, who told me about things I should buy, scatter around the roots, spray on or attach to a hose. I tried a few. Things grew worse.

Spring had started so beautifully! Everything I put in the ground took off eagerly. Then the summer heat and humidity, so characteristic of where I live, turned everything into a wretched, wilted, buggy, fungible fungi-infested mess.

After a month of steamy sun the nights became just a bit cooler. We had a few days of breezy rain that blew the bugs away. I watched in horror as the leaves fell off the roses, leaving gnarled, twisted, thorny green stalks.

I confess that I gave up. I shook my head, opened a book about World War II’s D-Day invasion, hated the smarmy, unflappable TV garden show hosts with their dazzlingly colorful borders that had not one brown leaf, and and tried to forget about the hot green mess I saw every morning when I took the dogs for a walk, picked up the morning paper (yes, I still read news printed on paper), wheeled the trash cans (the cheery blue container sending yesterday’s news to a recycler) out and back.

At my age I should have remembered the subtle inevitability of changing seasons, of the seasons within seasons when living things other than myself take breaks, get sick, react awkwardly to hardship, or lend themselves to mysterious processes that I can’t see. I should have faith that there is more to gardening than getting dirty, putting things in the ground and admiring the results.

Because, a few weeks later, I saw on those very same spindly green stalks, a little bump of new growth. Each day the sprout grew longer. Leaves unfolded and then–a bud that just might be, could be–became a bud that became a bloom.

Of the many things we so easily, and foolishly forget, patience is high on the list. Freud said we never quite stop being infants. I have moments when I zoom back to my childhood when I wanted stuff NOW and if I didn’t get it NOW I was going to be miserable NOW and if I still didn’t get what I wanted right NOW I would do my best to make everyone else around me miserable until….

Fortunately I recognize the mood and frequently nip it in the bud, so to speak. But, with the garden, what I wanted was that feeling that, despite a blissful ignorance of horticultural science and a grudging aversion to taking advice from garden center experts, I was doing the right thing with a patch of ground in front of the house, and that earnest collaborations with nature, no matter how tentative, awkward or naive, can lead to something worthwhile.

This feeling has almost nothing to do with the plants and other living things in the soil. In truth, it has almost nothing to do with anything other than me. And like most other desirable feelings and pleasant emotional moods, it is more about what’s happening in my brain than the infinitely complicated interactions outside.

After all, there are far more blossoms blooming on this planet than human beings to see them, appreciate them or even scurrilously take credit for them.

So, once again, at an age when I thought the tremors and travails of youth had given way to hard-earned wisdom, I had to wait until a bunch of plants helped me learn, or rather, re-learn, patience, not just for processes beyond my control, but for a life that still offers subtle surprises, quiet delight and new growth, perhaps the most precious gift of all.


Dirt Truth

After a while the soil sticks to your clothes and your skin, but you’re oddly proud. You’ve been thrusting your hands in mulch and fertilizer, flicking away the occasional slug, bug and–though you’ve been told they’re good for the plants–worm. You pack the soil around the base of a green thing, careful of the thorns. Every so often you stand back and gaze at what you’ve done, confident that by putting thing in the ground, you’ve made the world a better place.

How much better? Voltaire infamously ended Candide with a shrug: though ours is certainly not the best of all possible worlds, about the best thing you can do when bad things happen is go home and tend your garden–if you have one.

My mother had one. After a summer rainfall her rose garden smelled of coffee because she read somewhere that used Chock-Full-‘o-Nuts (the HEAVENLY Coffee, for those who remember the slogan) was a great soil enhancer. Our suburban house was on a corner bounded by three streets, so we had a little bit more than the typical quarter-acre and my mother planted it up, with a big circle of flowering annuals and perennials, a row of evergreens in the back and a few ornamental fruit trees whose rotting fruit stank up the yowling lawn mower that yours truly had to push once a week (sometimes twice in the spring and fall) while sneezing my guts out because I was allergic to just about everything that bloomed.

She even had a compost heap in distant corner by the neighbor’s fence where I dumped grass clippings, withered pieces of plants, vegetable fragments that weren’t good enough for the salad bowl and whole chunks of hedges that fell to the trimmer’s electric scream. After a while the pile would lose its fresh-cut chlorophyll aroma and become a darkening, malignant mound that gave off steam on cold winter afternoons, which, I was told, meant that all this organic matter that normal people put in the trash (except for the coffee grounds) was transforming itself into stuff she could scatter over the flower beds and around the trees next spring–with ground-up stuff that smelled like the wrong end of a cow from bags marked humus (not to be confused with the Middle Eastern bean dip).

Did the flowers bloom? I guess they did. Another of my sneezy outdoorsy jobs was watering them, after which I had to hose myself down because, as much as my mother loved fertile, loamy, fragrant dirt, she wouldn’t have it inside, unless it was in a pot nurturing a houseplant.

My mother became a member of the Pennsylvania horticultural society, attended the annual Philadelphia Flower Show religiously and filled nearly every horizontal surface of her house with plants. Some of those plants are in my house today.

And they’re doing just fine.

I did not inherit my mother’s green thumb. For many years I hated going outdoors because of my allergies. As I grew older, my allergies ebbed. I could survive the few weeks in the spring and fall with over-the-counter remedies.

Then I married my high school sweetheart, who, despite allergies, loves plants that bloom, especially roses. After buying a few supermarket bouquets, I went with her to a garden store where she took home a pot of a thorny bush called Princess Alexandra of Kent. This, she told me, was a David Austen rose, from the famed English rose breeder.

She bought bags of soil and asked my help putting it in the ground. Some of the dirt creeped under my fingernails.

The Princess, as we called her, did well for a while but, for reasons we still can’t figure out, perished. She was replaced with a Crown Princess Margreta and a Falstaff (both Austen roses). Both had slow starts. Margreta almost perished but Jan nursed her back to life.

And I bought more roses. We planted one spectacular bush called Tequila that became the marvel of the neighborhood. That led to more Austens (Windermere, the Lady Gardner, Port Sunlight and a few more Crown Princesses so we could grow them up our fence), a tree rose, a mini rose with small pink blossoms, a dwarf rose (a little larger than a mini) with orange blossoms, roses without names, roses found on a discount shelf at Home Depot, roses with such names as Paradise, Super Hero, Old Timer, Twilight Zone, Ebb Tide, Empress Josephine, Maggie, and Ringo Starr. Did you know Ringo had a rose named after him? We haven’t bought the Paul McCartney yet, but…

One rose whose name we forgot is now the Kai rose, for our grandchild.

I discovered I’m a sucker for plants with great names. In our garden is something called a Starship, a Turtle Head, a King Tut, and a Bengal Tiger. These aren’t roses. In fact, I’m not sure what they are, or what they’ll look like when they bloom.

But they’re growing and, a few days ago, when I was digging holes in the front, some people stopped and told me how nice the garden was. I invited their kids to smell the roses. “Always smell the roses,” I said, quoting a golfer who was actually misquoted (he never said anything about roses but, I guess when you’re a good golfer, people think you say marvelous things).

I stuck my nose in one of the roses and, though I’d smelled them many times, I felt like my grandchild when he ate ice cream for the first time. He said, “wow” but wow wasn’t enough.

After putting the gardening tools away, and watering the what I’d planted, I came into the house, cleaned myself up and watched the TV news. I saw terrible things happening elsewhere. If it isn’t violence, it’s horrifyingly bad weather.

We don’t get any violence on our street and, for reasons I don’t understand, the floods, tornados, hurricanes, earthquakes and forest fires have not found us. Several years ago a few feet of snow came down from the heavens. My back ached as I shoveled (a similar ache to how I feel after lifiting up big bags of ORGANIC garden soil) and I had that heartbreaking moment when I had cleared the driveway and the municipal snow plow truck roared by and put a new wall of white where I had briefly glimpsed the open road.

But I dug us out and we were okay.

I look at the news on TV, online and in the newspaper that arrives every morning, and I wonder, how are my wife and I so lucky?

Then we go outside and tend our garden.


Birthday Tree

Some years ago I stood on the muddy banks of the Schuykill River in southwest Philadelphia and gazed, not at the industrial ruins across the water, but up at the long, verdant slope behind me. Here were the remains of a cider press, and, just beyond them, the scruffy plantings of shrubs, trees and flowering plants that had been gathered 300 years ago to become John Bartram’s Garden, the oldest botanical garden in the United States.

Created in 1728 by an American born Quaker and self-taught botanist, the fifty acre farm was an incubator for what were then considered exotic “New World” plants. Bartram and his sons regularly explored the American colonies, bringing back seeds and cuttings fof the interesting and unusual for many international patrons. Among Bartram’s patrons was King George III, and Benjamin Franklin, who would eventually help take the colonies away from the king.

Franklin often visited the garden when he was in Philadelphia, arriving by boat close to where I stood. He would have long conversations with Bartram about the natural wonders Bartram discovered.

Among those found by Bartram and his sons was one of several “curious shrubs” growing on the banks of Georgia’s Altamaha River. With its ruddy red branches, delicate white blossoms with golden centers, the specimen was uniquely beautiful. Bartram planted it in his garden and named it Franklinia Altamaha in honor of his good friend.

During subsequent southern trips, Bartram’s sons failed to find the tree growing in the wild. Additional searches by botonists who literally followed in their footsteps also had no results. Franklinia no longer existed in the wild.

The trees in Bartram’s garden thrived and remain there to this day. While Franklinia is not popular among American “garden variety” plantings, it is prized by collectors, specialty gardeners and those who like to feel that by keeping a green thing alive, they are maintaining one more natural wonder for future generations to admire.

About a year ago, a neighbor told me that, for the past 25 years, he bought and planted a different tree for his birthday. I told him the story of Franklinia. He looked at his oaks, pines, cedars, maples and cherry trees and frowned. “Don’t have that one. They’re supposed to be tough to grow.”

Last year my wife Jan got me a green Japanese maple for my birthday. I was nervous about it because, my mother was the gardener in our family. I used to have a black them but I had learned a tiny bit from Jan and had graduated to the put-it-in-the-ground-and-see-what-happens school of horticulture.

So, thanks to my Jan’s care, the tree thrived. When this year’s birthday came around, I told her the Franklinia story. I e-mailed Bartram’s Garden to find out if they shipped Franklinia saplings. Bartram’s had sold out. Our local garden supply shops didn’t have it, and didn’t want to order it. “That plant is too fussy.”

Jan made some calls and found a nursery in New Jersey that could ship us a tree in a pot. My birthday came and went and then, the tree arrived in a box.

It was in perfect health. We’re going to put it in a large pot outside and we’ll give it as much love, and fussin’, as we can.