“Gardening is the handiest excuse for being a philosopher.”
-Ray Bradbury, Dandelion Wine
Gardening should be a part of my genetic make-up. Close and distant relatives maintain successful gardens. Some even farm. Farm! Like my blue eyes and big feet, I should have inherited a green thumb.
But I didn’t.
Plants die under my care. All. The. Time. I blame my parents. When I was a child, they moved from city to city for work. In fact, we moved more times than I can count. All this bustling from one place to another was not conducive to landscaping. No one wants to spend hours tending plants only to leave before they take root.
Once I managed to grow pumpkins, but it was purely accidental. I put a pumpkin, a scarecrow, and a bale of hay in the front yard for a fall vignette. Snow came early that year. Several inches piled up on Halloween and never melted. I plucked the scarecrow from the cold ground and stored it in the basement. But when the pumpkin and hay disappeared under the blanket of white snow, they also disappeared from my mind.
Mid-summer I finally got around to cleaning up yard. When I disposed of the rotting hay, I discovered a vine emerged from the exact spot where the pumpkin sat. Given my track record, I thought it best to assume a lazier-faire approach. Watch and wait. Months later, three small pumpkins came out of the whole ordeal. The pumpkins were my pride, never mind the facta they were a product of my negligence.
The white house on Washington Street was my first home as an adult. Built in 1910, the front yard boasted three hearty peony bushes. Every spring they faithfully erupted in massive blooms. Their fragrance is a smell I can’t forget though decades have passed.
Of course, fat black ants loved those peonies, with their flowers unfolding like little heads of lettuce, layered and lush. Clippings for floral arrangements required a firm shake to evict the unwanted guests before they were brought in— a lesson I learned the hard way.
The peonies, like the pumpkins, thrived with no help from me. Every year, I stood by greedily snipping blooms until their silky petals turned brown from summer heat. Then I plucked their heads and tossed them in the trash. Lush leaves remained until fall when I mowed the plants to the ground. Like clockwork, every spring they returned.
My Grandmother took special pride in her gardening and rightfully so. Her massive garden in the vacant lot adjacent to her house is admired by many. She is the only person I know who keeps geraniums alive through winter with a little artificial light and a lot of faith. Every summer they return blooming. Each year they seem to get bigger and more brilliant than the last.
She is also the only person I know who plants cucumbers among her flowerbeds. The practice started as marital rebellion. Grandpa insisted that his wife would never toil in a garden like his mother did for decades. But grandma begged him for a flower bed until he finally conceded. Little did he know, among the marigolds and naked ladies, she planted cucumbers which she sliced and served in a sour cream dressing for family gatherings.
When we moved into the brick house on Drexel Lake, we were far from Grandma and the white farmhouse. Still, I was lucky enough to inherit a gardenia shrub by the front steps, a pink azalea bush in back, and a stunning violet hydrangea plant by the driveway. Each one was a stunning delight that I never planned or planted. The stood as a constant reminder that sometimes, life is generous and we enjoy the toils of our predecessors.
Every spring I took a picture of the children decked in their Easter best in front of “my” azaleas. Occasionally, I cut gardenias for the dining room table. Older and wiser, I was careful to shake them outside before bringing them in. Like the peonies, they attracted ants. But not the big ones from the Midwest; these ants were almost microscopic. The effort was worth it. Small bouquets of gardenias sitting pretty on my table freshened the air better than any store bought deodorizer.
We have lived in our current home for almost two years now. A hopeless optimist, I finally mustered the courage to plant some bulbs. The temperatures dipped and leaves yellowed. Carefully, I dug holes then planted the bulbs point down in the soil.
It occurred to me as I covered the final bulb, I should have put on gloves. The realization came too late as do most of my epiphanies. My hands were ruddy from soil and required a vigorous scrub to remove the earth which clung to my dry cuticles with fierce desperation.
It has been a wet November. This would mean something to a person with a green thumb. But I am not, so I just try to remember to take my umbrella when I leave the house.
The bulbs now lie dormant in darkness beside rosebushes that bloom without fail in all but the coldest of months. Their red blooms taunt me as they flaunt their independence. They are completely unreliant upon my human hand. Much like the dandelions that overtake my yard in the summer sun. They bloom without fail.
Dandelions don’t bother me like they irritate other people. In fact, one day I plan to harvest them for dandelion tea and maybe even use their greens for salad. For now, though, the girls bring me bouquets by the handful. I promptly put them in water, but they droop faster than any flower I know.
The problem, as I see it, is plants listen. My boy inevitably sees a vase of dandelions and slanders the flowers. “Why are weeds inside?” he demands.
But I have my own demands. Who decided dandelions are weeds? Why all this ugly talk? I am a full-grown woman, old enough to suck it up and move on. My skin should be thick like the calluses on my feet. Weeds? I cannot plug my ears like a child. This name-calling, if you ask me, isn’t right.
Dandelions ought to be called champions, not weeds. They beat the odds. Man declared war against them, yet they prevail. And how to we respond to such victory, such resilience? We call them weeds. Say what you want. But wherever I go, the dandelion, follows like a faithful friend. Bringing the same serendipity as the pumpkin vine, the peony bush, and the azalea shrub.
Months will pass before I know if the bulbs took root. For now, all I know is occasionally, I have unearned wins, like the pumpkins. And sometimes, good people bless their successors with peonies and gardenias.
And there are times to dig in, get dirty, forget past failures, and hope for the best.
The flower beds may be fallow this spring— a risk I am willing to accept. Because even if the bulbs don’t bloom, I know I can always count on the dandelions— ever faithful with their bursts of yellow cheer.