Tuesday, July 24, 2007

A Love of Gardening Should Be Passed Along

My Grandmother Remelle Wilhite
My mother taught me many things. She taught me how to fry chicken and bathe a baby and make a prom dress and many other necessary skills that I’ve been doing so long I forgot where I learned them.

She did not, however, teach me but one thing about gardening. When I bought my first twelve pack of pansies to plant in the three by three foot square of red dirt next to our apartment in Stone Mountain, she suggested I work in some “woods dirt” from my grandmother’s yard to improve the soil. The hard red clay was not likely to inspire my pansies to perform at their best she said. It was a valuable lesson, but it was the only lesson.

Though she would attack indoor dust and dirt with inspiring vigor, she did not like to get dirty outside. She planted hydrangeas along one side of the house in Decatur and climbing roses across the back fence and that was all. Whatever foundation plantings came with the house when we moved in when I was thirteen were only replaced once in the thirty-five years my parents owned the house.

Her mother, my grandmother, on the other hand, must have enjoyed gardening, and shared her pleasure in it with me. She had lived most of her adult life in the city, but was not far off the farm, and, after my grandfather retired, she moved with him to Stone Mountain when it was still rural Georgia.

I remember digging potatoes with her in a small field where the soil was enriched by the chicken manure from my grandfather’s chickens, and I can see myself and one or two cousins dunked in a bath of something lethal, to get rid of chiggers after a morning spent picking blackberries on land that stood between her house and Stone Mountain,. In an old photo, taken at a family gathering in the early fifties, I can pick out canna and aspidistra near the mortared granite pillar beside the porch, and in one of her letters, she mentions planting “hollyhawks.” In another photo I have on my desk, taken when she was in her seventies, my grandmother stands smiling under an arbor of lush, pink roses that she must have tended herself.

I have one brother who started gardening late in his life and only after he had been married for some years to a Tennessee Farm Girl who had to explain to him exactly what "compost" is.

Now he understands what compost is, AND the importance of horse manure, and even better, when it comes from you own horse. So every year this brother, who grew up in the same household with the same mother as I, puts in tomatoes, pole beans, turnip greens (he has finally learned to love them in his mid 50's) and swaps them with neighbors and friends for watermelons and cantaloupe.

Nothing like your own garden, he writes. Nothing like your own "stuff" just to give to friends, eat for yourself or "put up".

Then another brother, the youngest, says the only gardening advice he remembers is, "You’d better get that grass cut by the time I get home." By the time he got old enough to hold a hoe, our grandfather had died and our grandmother had moved to a smaller house where there was no potato patch.

I always wished that my children and their children could have the experience of spending time on a farm as I did, but we’re city folks so they must settle for a bit of a garden where they can find it. My grandson and his parents and little brother have just moved into a new house in Florence with a lush, green yard. The house came neatly landscaped with manicured shrubs and a tree or two, but over in one corner, up against the back fence, is a rectangle of bare soil that measures about three by seven feet. The first thing three-year-old Aiden showed me when we visited a few weeks ago was this spot. It was nothing but a patch of dirt at the time, but he got out his “shuggles” and began to dig, moving the dark PeeDee dirt from one end of the plot to the other.

This weekend we planted a garden in Aiden’s corner. It’s a heavenly place, with Sunflowers, perennial and annual, Moonflowers, a few watermelons, and seeds for pumpkins. I think, as enthusiastic as I was about the plants, he would just as soon have spent his time digging, but, when the moonflowers start to bloom, I’ll read him Jean and Peter Loewer’s beautiful book, Moonflower, that tells the story of a moonflower vine and all the night creatures that are drawn to it, and I’ll be sure that he notices when he wakes up one morning to find that the yellow flower at the end of the watermelon vine has become an egg shaped green fruit.

“How long until Aiden's big enough to lift a fifty pound bag of pine bark?” asks my youngest son, just to be sure I don’t get too serious about this issue. “Uncle Dave is ready to turn over that piece of his childhood to the next generation.”

Maybe a love of gardening runs in families, like twins or red hair, but isn’t bestowed on everyone equally. Or, maybe, it’s more like Aunt Bessie’s silver tea service - a family treasure.