As a kid, I couldn’t fathom why my mom killed time on an activity so inexplicably dorky as gardening. During the spring and summer, I was far too busy with matters of great consequence, like final exams, prom dress shopping, basketball camp, and reruns of Gilligan’s Island. In college, I’d laugh and roll my eyes at the detailed play-by-play of blooming perennials in Mom’s weekly letters. Boooo-ring! I snickered, in that all-knowing teenagerly way, off to drill verb conjugations in Russian 102. I couldn’t imagine myself expending energy on anything so prosaic as toiling away in the soil. I imagined some vague future career for myself involving designer suits and exotic adventures far from sleepy Nashville, Tennessee.
Instead, I became a writer–a career that is, in fact, so vague that friends of mine who drop by during the work day can detect no evidence of work in progress. There’s not a single suit in my closet, and my passport hasn’t been stamped as much as I would like. Looo-serrrr! I can hear my teen-aged self muttering. But guess what? I am at work right now in my back yard, gazing into my herb garden, the one I planted with Mom this summer. The aromas of basil, thyme, and rosemary waft across my back porch “office,” borne on a seventy-degree breeze. It’s as exotic a locale as I could have hoped for, and I don’t need to apply for a visa.
I’m rubbing it in, I realize. But to all you doctors, lawyers, and astronauts from my high school graduating class who are wondering, “An herb garden?” What happened to your adolescent sense of purpose? I answer: it’s a hereditary disorder.
The gardening disease didn’t manifest itself until four years ago, when my husband Hal and I bought a tuckered-out, ninety-year-old house in a barely reviving Nashville swath of urban decay. With a major internal overhaul underway to which I could contribute few real skills, I endeavored to brighten up the yard a bit. That autumn, I did everything I could to make our small corner lot look like it hadn’t been hit with a tactical warhead. Unfortunately, except for picking up trash and arranging a few sad pots of mums on the decaying front steps, I had no idea where to start. “What’s a boxwood?” I asked, when Hal made some landscaping suggestions.
I began to realize that this wasn’t going to be the Two-Week Total Makeover I had envisioned. I needed to bring in the big guns. Fortunately, Mom lives minutes away.
For the next two years, Mom and I assaulted the ground with trowels, slowly coaxing curb appeal from the trash-strewn mudhole that our front yard had been. I tried to absorb everything she knew, but nothing stuck. I kept asking her the same questions over and over, like, “What was that one called again? Does it like sun or shade?” and “What’s a perennial?” To her credit, she never once rolled her eyes. I became adept at inventing playful names for plants when I couldn’t remember the real ones. Cleyera japonica became “Cletis,” for example, and Harry Lauder’s Walking Stick was dubbed “Twister.” I knew things couldn’t go on like this. But as far as the botanical world was concerned, my head was sandy soil–quick draining and infertile.
Finally, I suggested we take Tennessee’s master gardener course together. Once or twice a week last spring, we’d meet at 5pm for a beer and a slice of pizza, then head eagerly to class at Nashville’s fairgrounds. Something, shall we say, germinated.
Mom and I still share beer and pizza on spring and summer afternoons. But now we slap a fat copy of Michael Dirr’s Manual of Woody Landscape Plants onto the table and pore through it, on pins and needles to know what our guru, Dirr, has to say about the “Athens” cultivar of Calycanthus floridus we just bought at our favorite nursery. The waiter rolls his eyes as we giggle wildly over stacks of plant-porn–Wayside Gardens and Parks catalogs–and decide whether we should go ahead and order the new “Coppertina” Ninebark or just get yet another fancy Japanese maple cultivar to add to the collection.
Usually by this time of day, our matching Master Gardener t-shirts and hats are crusted with dirt from the afternoon’s digging. You see, we’re dorks, and we’re comfortable with that. We enjoy driving by houses with spherically pruned boxwood “meatballs” lining the foundation and call out “Boooooo-ringggggg!” or lawns screened by tired rows of dying, brown Leyland Cypresses and yell, “Looooo-serrrrrrrr!”
Then we head back to my yard, which is coming along quite nicely, thank you very much, and loudly admire the unstudied uniqueness of our fabulous new Cornus controversa, for all to hear.