My mother was never a gardener. But she loved flowers. In the spring I would bring her lilacs and she would revel in their fragrance. It was one of her favorite scents, which would fill the kitchen where she put them in her favorite vase. But she felt quite different when I would bring her a living plant. She would always look at me in a pleasing manner but with a sigh of resignation say, “Well, you know Erik this is just going to die. I have a black thumb.” Now my mother wasn’t the type of person who would cut the blooms off roses but she did have a knack for transforming luscious green plants into crumbling brown ones. This was hard to believe from a woman who as a young girl spent summers at her Uncle Bill and Aunt Ruth Johnston’s house getting up before dawn to feed and water the chickens and tend to the gardens. Perhaps her aversion to plants was due to some deep-seeded resentment for those chores during her teenage years.
Last year we needed to go to a local nursery store to pick up some peat moss for my garden. My mother initially didn’t want to leave the car but I convinced her it would be good just to get out and stretch her legs. She agreed and soon was meandering around all the different flowers that were on display. As she walked, she seemed to enter another world as she was smiling and gently touching different plants. The pansies were soon in focus. “I love pansies,” she said. “But they always die on me.”
Early this spring I was determined to change this view by getting my mother more active in the garden. I thought the easiest place to start was in the two flower beds that flank the front door of her house. As long as I can remember it has been a wasteland. Nothing ever grew there well and after looking at the site in some detail, it was easy to discover why. It had no soil: only left-over construction dirt, sand and concrete pieces. Being on the north side of the house, it got little sun with an overhang keeping most of it bone dry. The only things that consistently grew were a pair of mangy boxwoods bracketing this inhospitable space. Even weeds kept their distance. One of my sisters had attempted to spruce up the area. Survivors were few: a scrawny hosta and a couple of coral bells. So we had some work in front of us.
We first went to a garden center and purchased large bags of soil, compost and dehydrated manure. “Do we really need all this stuff,” asked my mother. I assured her that we needed it all. We then went to select the different plants. Though we would be planting on the north side of the house, we had to get pansies. They were my mother’s favorite. As we walked toward the register to pay for our goods, my mother lingered around the tuberous begonias.
“These are lovely,” she said. So we picked up a dark red one, loaded up the car and headed home.
From my house I dug up some hostas, astilbes, bleeding hearts, and ferns. These were all hardy and would do well in the shade. My mother has a hard time sitting low or being on her knees, so she sat on the steps directing me where to dig. She could quickly see the condition of the ground especially when we opened all the bags and saw the difference between her dirt and the bags of organic material we bought.
“Mom smell the difference. Feel the difference.” She gave me one of her strange looks but tentatively took a handful of her dirt as well as the purchased soil. The brown-black soil was thick, moist and could be compressed. Our dirt, on the other hand, was a dirty sandy color, dry and lifeless. She was beginning to understand.
So we worked together, me digging out the dirt and her handing me pots of soil, compost and manure to mix in the hole. I mixed it up and put in the plants. I had my mother remove the pansies from the cell packs and spread the roots. This was a good exercise for her arthritic fingers. She enjoyed splitting up the plants though later she complained how long it took her to get the dirt out from under her fingernails.
We spent the better part of the afternoon outside talking and planting. After everything was in the soil, I then spread mulch to dress everything up and retain the moisture. My mother was pleasantly surprised. “I can’t believe how wonderful this looks.”
But there was one more thing she had to do. “Mom, you need to water these gardens regularly or all the things we planted may die. Particularly in the back where it never gets wet.” She assured me she would and I set up the hose for the front so it would be easy for her to water the plants. I also told her that if she wanted continuous flowers from her pansies she would need to pinch off the spent blooms. I showed her how to remove them and we worked on a safe way for her to bend down to do that exercise.
And an amazing thing happened. She watered all the time. She pinched her spent pansy blooms. The front flower garden now has flowers.
I call my mom a couple of times a week and we often talk about the garden and how it is doing. Everyday, even during days it would rain, my mom checks the garden and see if the soil is dry.
In the months since we first planted it, everything is growing well (except for one astilbe that didn’t take). We added dark red impatiens (my mother loves dark red flowers) recently and many of my mom’s neighbors and friends have told her how beautiful her garden looks. She is very proud; she is even thinking about letting me start another bed in the back of the house where she gets sun all day.