Two decades ago, just before my husband’s favorite cousins Mal and Marge moved from the Westport, Conn. house where Mal had raised state-of-the-art rhododendrons, we were invited over to dig some up, in whatever size and quantity suited us.
At the time, I had barely wrapped up my freshman season as a weekend gardener, and thus was, let me just say, pretty green. I was also concerned about appearing greedy. So rather than choose the large robust bushes that Mal generously and wisely urged on me, I airily went with half a dozen tender specimens, all about the same age as our toddler children. They’ll all mature together went my thinking.
Transplanted to a slice of land just off the driveway, the rhododendrons have flourished only intermittently despite my diligent ministering (for the record, my now grown offspring are doing just fine). But I don’t mind. Well, I don’t much mind. Whenever I walk past them, I think of the late Mal and smile. Every serving of the soil nutrient Miracid that I dish up is a small tribute to him.
Part of the attraction when I began gardening was the scope for solitude; it was a mindless escape from husband, children and work. Wheelbarrow outfitted with trowel, loppers, rake and tiller, I’d head up a path perpendicular to the stone wall to yank up the rocks and roots that were getting in the way of my ambitious if vague beautification plans.
Now, 20 years or so in, there is nothing solitary about this pursuit at all. I am now surrounded by plants that once belonged to important people in my life, and I keenly feel their presence. This isn’t my garden; it’s my community garden.
Mal was the first of many benefactors. I’ve done very well by the boxwood he gave me; it sort of makes up for the rhododendrons. The flowering nettle that edges the stone wall in the back of the house came from the garden of my best friend, Arlene; a particularly graceful fern from the garden of my friend, Susan. I have irises around the large rock in the front of our house only because my friend Nancy dug up and divided them on my behalf. It’s also because of Nancy that as of three weeks ago, I have a canna lily sprouting large shapely leaves in a bed just off our deck near the garage.
In much the way cooks share their recipes, gardeners share their plants. My sister-in-law built her backyard plot on the largess of a friend who was moving from Connecticut to North Carolina and invited her over to forage. The haul included a mess of Lady’s Mantle, barrenwort, coneflowers and phlox.
An elderly neighbor who saw me admiring her trumpet and Asiatic lilies one morning when I was walking our dog, surprised me a few days later with several flowering clumps. Detailed planting instructions were followed by the story of how she met her recently deceased husband. (She was his much younger secretary and though they were married to other people, they fell madly in love — his first gift to her was flowers; guess what kind — and ran off together. My neighbor, who became a good friend, died half a dozen years ago, but the lilies she gave me return faithfully every midsummer.
Frequently, I have gotten advice along with the additions — about grouping plants in odd numbers to bolster visual interest, about the importance of thoroughly soaking the root ball before planting, about the folly of over-raking out a bed during the spring cleanup, in the process depriving vulnerable plants of needed warmth, and about the desirability of arranging a bed to have flowers with different bloom times, thus assuring color all season. Then there was this: plant hostas and day lilies if you must, but understand that you are doing nothing so much as providing a Bambi buffet. Did I listen? Alas, I did not.
Still, I have much the better garden for all their contributions, and I am much the better gardener for all the good counsel — and I have some proof. A friend who came to lunch last weekend wanted to know when I would next be dividing the daisies and bleeding hearts, because she’d like some. A first.
I try very hard not to think about how much I spend every summer on what I have come to term exterior decoration. When I was new at the game, I was innocently delighted by the offer of free stuff, from someone else’s garden. Take that, Home Depot. It didn’t occur to me to question whether or not I liked harrow. Into the ground it went. And it didn’t occur to me to fret about outcomes. If that harrow or the hydrangea didn’t take because I over-watered or under-watered; if I planted them in a sunny spot when shade was required or vice versa, no matter — I was a rookie.
But now if I make a hash of a friend’s dianthus or butterfly bush, I can no longer plead ignorance or inferior soil. I can no longer put it down to the fickle ways of nature. I feel not simply that I have failed the perennial, but that I have failed my friend too, and am, consequently, unworthy of further contributions.
On the other hand, when these hand-me-down plants thrive, it is particularly gratifying.
I like to think that these offshoots are the offshoots of offshoots from countless other gardens and countless other big-hearted gardeners. Particularly in these times, it’s a lovely sort of immortality.