A slow waltz in the garden

Baillie Street House

The yellow cedar out back is dancing a slow waltz with the wind that brought this grey drummer, the rain, to the party. The Douglas fir, just at the end of the fence, is standing on the sidelines like a young man who professes not to be able to dance, swaying to the tunes of the rain, wanting to participate but just going in rhythm foot to foot.

The grass is growing longer in one section where we seeded it in last year, a strong vigorous green. The tulips are rising late from the bed that parallels the sidewalk, the first blooms a pink edging on salmon. There is another batch, different variety, that has poked its heads up but not yet declared its colour. Franc and I planted these last fall after a trip out to the Tim Chiang farm in Richmond, a great place to get annuals. The daffodils bloomed at the first crack of spring. They are still out there in their bright yellow dresses, as if night and the dawn cannot chastise them out of their party clothes. The tulips are more sedate. They go to bed early with the first warning of cold, close up their petals and wait until the day warms up before they will unfurl again. I’m not even sure they went to the party!
Everything is awakening, in spite of or perhaps because of, the spring rains. It’s April.

Instead of planting this year, I’m digging up and potting the heritage plants I’ve been fostering over these last twelve years; and adding to, I must say. Mom’s Christmas Rose was always a miracle for her. It bloomed in the dead of winter, a hardy Hellaborus that has pure white blossoms. Often over the Christmas period, for a special dinner, Mom would pluck a few blossoms and put them in a centerpiece to decorate the dining table. She boasted that she could bring fresh floral material out of the garden any time of the year.

That Christmas Rose was from Dad’s side of the family. His father, John, homesteaded in the Interlaken district of Manitoba; he and his brother Klaas won prizes for their vegetables in major Agricultural competitions, going as far as Chicago to win the Cauliflower Crown. When Grandfather John sold the homestead in Ashern after fourteen years of labouring on it, he decided to bring Trientje and his crop of five children into Winnipeg so that they could have a good education. It was a common pioneer dream.

He took a job as a horticulturist with the University of Manitoba, working on experiments in the growing of corn, amongst other things. At their new home, he cultivated large beds of flowers for home and for market. Tall gracious Delphiniums were his speciality. Mom said she never knew how spoiled she was until much later, after she and Dad moved to Ottawa for his first engineering job. Up until then, every time Dad came a-courting, he always had a large bouquet of magnificent blooms behind his back, waiting for the front door of her home to open in welcome. (No wonder she kept him! What girl could resist?)

I tell you all this because that Christmas Rose in the back yard has been moved every time they moved to a new house. I’m sure that white variety of Hellaborus can be purchased somewhere, but any nursery I’ve trailed through only has red coloured varieties.

I didn’t inherit the green thumb from the Dutch side of the family, but I did inherit the love of gardening. What others might find mind-numbing maintenance tasks, I take on as meditations. As a result, any delphiniums I’ve ever bought in honour of my grandfather have died after a first year of uncertain bloom. They are supposed to be perennials. I’ve also had no luck with hollyhock which is supposed to grow like a weed. Add to that list heather, that brilliant blue ground cover- lithodora – and anything I attempt to grow from seed.

I’ve a good crop of alstromeria, astilbe, aquilesia or Columbine, lemon balm and day lilies. I’ve been told no one can kill them. That’s my kind of flower. A weed with an expressive form and lots of colourful bloom.

Assuming they have made it through the winter, I also plan to pot up and move the passion flower, the astrantia – a new addition to my garden which flowers all summer, the winter hardy fushcia, a Candis Armandia clematis and what ever else I can find of my recent perennial purchases.

My cousin Mary has offered to take them in her back yard until I have a place to live. She’s a great gardener and has contributed several items to my shady spots where I’ve had difficulty in getting anything to live more than a month.

The thing is, if the next owner is going to raze the house, then the garden is just going to be trashed. All those lovely plant friends of mine, trompled and dug under. It’s heart breaking.

Dad, before he passed away, had a green house that Heather now has at her place. He spent countless hours carefully wintering over geraniums, hanging baskets, and other tender plants. In the summer, he planted tomatoes, cucumbers and green beans in there, hydroponically producing half the year’s vegetable requirements for the table. I can see him in my mind’s eye, tall and slightly stooped, dressed in his favourite green sweater with leather patches on the elbows; the sweater was getting threadbare and was the bane of Mother’s fashion existence. What if someone came to visit and saw him with wool threads fraying at the cuff?

I felt he looked comfortable, at ease with himself, happy. That’s a lovely memory for me.

Mom, on the other hand, had given up on the garden. The only thing she would take responsibility for was the collection of hanging baskets that she composed herself until that became difficult and she simply spent her money to buy them. That is, until I came to stay.

It was hard to find things that she could do that made her feel useful. With her vision going, she couldn’t read or do handiwork – knitting or crochet. Television was frustrating as the images darted about. It was impossible for her to digest the image fast enough to interpret it. Our whole world has become impatiently expectant that everything should occur faster and faster. We don’t tolerate slow activity anymore. We want it immediately or we won’t wait. We just go on to something else.

It was a joyful day for Mother when she could sit out on the back porch, even at the age of ninety one and may be ninety two, taking a juvenile geranium plants from their little black starter pots, shake the dirt from around them, caressing out the fine roots and planting them in larger pots or hanging baskets. Geraniums weren’t the only ones, of course. There was impatience, lobelia, petunias, some feathery daisy flowers, some trailing leafy stuff and fuschia, the hanging variety, and other novelties that worked or didn’t. Yours truly always did better with the ready made variety, but Mom could make those little plants thrive.

She always felt cold, even though June was just around the corner, She would dress in my winter down coat to keep her warm, potting away the new bedding plants. She would do a little, then close her eyes in the midday sun and dream. She could barely see what she was doing but she could feel the earth and the baby plant, she could feel the edges of the pot and how well tamped the warm potting soil was in it. She was making something beautiful and it was good to be alive.

I can see her now in my mind, carefully stepping down the back stairs, her hands on my shoulders to support her wobbliness. At the last post at the bottom, she grasped the rail until I went back up and brought down her walker. She would trail around the flower beds, my hand under her oxters to ensure she didn’t fall, reviewing the flower troops from my latest nursery foray.

It was fitting, at her memorial, that the room was filled with magnificent bouquets of flowers.

I can see her now.

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4 Responses to “A slow waltz in the garden”

  1. suburbanlife Says:

    K – I loved reading this – the love of husbanding plants has been sent down through the generations of your family. You are right to take out the plants that will no doubt be destroyed after the sale of your house. I need you to take me a slip or two of St. John’s Wort – the ones you gave me last year are flourishing, but I would like to add to their bed. My Dad too loved to grow things, he was most delighted by his bumper crops of kohlrabi, and would make night-time drop off raids in the neighbourhood to spread the joy. he was bad at flowers though. šŸ™‚

  2. lookingforbeauty Says:

    Suburban,
    You’ve got it! Just let me know what you would like a patch of.
    Your Kohlrabi comment made me think of Dad’s asparagus.
    We always glut on asparagus when it comes in season as a result. It’s rather difficult to grow well. He had a plot especially for it, much sandier soil. There is a whole fine art to growing gardens and it is so healthy for the soul.

  3. Marsha J. O'Brien Says:

    I loved this too! Mmmmm – took me to the awakening of spring and the beauty. Loved
    the entire “slow waltz in the garden” – very interesting, great writing.

    Last few paragraphs brought memories to me of mama and your writing touched the
    deepest parts of my heart. Thanks for the waltz!

  4. Paleo breakfast ideas with eggs Says:

    I was curious if you ever considered changing the layout of your blog?
    Its very well written; I love what youve got to say.

    But maybe you could a little more in the way of content so
    people could connect with it better. Youve got an awful lot of text for
    only having one or two images. Maybe you
    could space it out better?

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