Tending Someone Else’s Garden
A couple of months ago, my family purchased and moved into a new to us home. It was lovingly built on a Chattanooga hillside by a childless couple beginning retirement. The yard became their labor of love and gift to the neighborhood. By the time we saw the house, the wife had died and the man had moved into an assisted living facility. For several months the house had been empty, and that coincided with a serious drought. Though the homeowner provided for the yard’s basic maintenance, the plants were suffering and many were dead. We weren’t sure what Spring would bring but hoped there would be enough to survive that we wouldn’t have to start from scratch.
We learned that the previous homeowner was a celebrated rosearian who had won many awards for his beautiful roses and for his efforts to teach others about the joy of cultivating and sharing them. Ted Mills also created an organic rose fertilizer, Mills Magic, that is available in garden centers (and is on my shopping list!). Everyone we met from the letter carrier to the hairdresser wanted to know if we would continue to tend Ted’s roses – all 40 of them – if all 40 had survived last summer.
Roses are not my thing. I love to be in the garden, to dig in the dirt, and to cut flowers to bring inside my house. I almost never wear garden gloves. I usually bound into the beds having forgotten to bring clipping tools. Roses just aren’t set up for that. And they tend to take a bit more work than I have been prepared to provide. My landscape design theory has been to choose blooming things that thrive on neglect. I’m happy to water and weed. I actually love to stand in the garden with a hose in one hand and coffee in the other. But I’m not a pruner or one who inspects for molds and bugs. In my mind, roses take persistent attention. And they hurt when you pick them. Now I have 40 of them – along with irises, daffodils (the first early surprise), blue bonnets, hydrangeas, and who knows what else just yet. The mulch is thick and the soil is rich. There are a few places where I can add my own flair, but the bones of the garden are strong and established.
We really haven’t had that in a yard before. The only thing that was well established in our first yard was a huge hill covered in ivy. My husband spent his Fridays mowing the rest of that hill with our toddler on his shoulders, and we raked leaves from the giant oak tree well into February. We lived near a wonderful garden center, and my son and I spent long afternoons wandering the aisles of color. He helped me choose and plant daylilies with tiny yellow blooms and when friends and family would admire them he would proudly announce, “They’re called Bitsy!” In that yard we learned that French hydrangeas bloom on old wood – the hard and colorless way after we cut them way back in the Fall.
Our next home was brand new construction and the yard was huge. Friends helped us lay sod in the back following a particularly rainy Spring when I had two little boys who were perpetually covered in red mud. There I experimented with everything and found my favorites were pass-alongs from my husband’s grandmother – including irises from her mother’s yard in Mississippi. The crepe myrtles that my parents gave me for my birthday are so tall and beautiful now. Though we moved away a few years ago, the trees in that yard represent births, anniversaries, and hope. The ground holds the bones of beloved pets and the memories of packs of boys playing for the national championship.
Another yard brought the best spot ever for growing tomatoes and became the sacred ground where new friendships were formed. Though the house was 150 years old, there wasn’t much in the way of landscaping. The scale of the yard was small, so it didn’t take much time to create an intimate courtyard of blooms.
Now we’ve left all of those landscapes behind and are, for the first time, inheriting ground that has been cultivated and loved by someone else, and it shows. As the earth wakes up this Spring, I have been daily surprised by what has lain dormant. One February morning, I looked out my bedroom window to realize we had been invaded by daffodils. Where I thought nearly a quarter of Mr. Mills’ roses might have been lost to the drought, I am now greeted by blooms of every color (that I must wear gloves to cut!). This next year is going to be filled with discoveries of gifts left by our predecessors even as I carve out space for my own contributions and try to harmonize it all. There is a concrete bird bath in the middle of the only empty bed in the yard. It has a hole in it so it won’t hold water. I lined it with moss and filled it with soil. Now it is an herb garden surrounded by vegetables promising a summer’s worth of tomatoes, squash, and peppers.
We’re spending a lot of time wandering through the yard and learning about what has been left to us. It is an honor and a responsibility to tend an inherited garden. Each plant represents someone else’s ideas of beauty, someone else’s hope and intent to leave the world better than he found it. The garden reflects trust in the Creator, joy in the creation.
We intend to keep it as a gift to our neighbors and in gratitude for its grace. You can bet the plants I add will require as little maintenance as possible but will bloom profusely in every color I can find. There will be tomatoes for sharing, so if you forget to bring your gloves when you come to pick a rose, just step around to the back and feel free to reach right into the vegetable garden bare handed.