You were born the same day that the first daffodils bloomed through the snow next to the garage.” Thus, my garden-loving mother described my birthday in the thick wooden scrapbook that chronicled my early years. The seeds of my life as a garden designer were planted at a very early age!
My earliest recollection of being with my mother in her garden, had nothing to do with plants. I was helping her to hang wet clothing out to dry on the umbrella-style clothesline in the garden. Mom didn't hang the clothes in just any order as they came out of the wicker basket; she hung complimentary colors next to each other. She seemed to sense instinctively that the yellow and orange tee-shirts needed some blue jeans to balance them or that the red and purple plaid dress, my personal favorite, would be enhanced by chartreuse socks (my father was a golfer, so we had many more colors to choose from than most families
did!) . When the whole 'umbrella ' was filled, the effect of those colors amidst the various greens of the garden were a joy to my young eyes! Kaleidoscopes had always been one of my favorite toys and the drying clothes were a kaleidoscope come to life. My young imagination was sure that those color-coordinated clothes liked hanging out together.
Mom's whole garden was laid out with this same eye for color. She knew exactly when the daylilies would be in bloom and made sure to plant a variety of tall campanula that was the perfect shade of purple to make the peach daylilies sizzle! Zinnias, she knew, could appear mighty hot in Pennsylvania summers unless they were cooled by a blue ageratum border. In the fall, when our Japanese Maples turned scarlet, chrysanthemums in rust, mauve and gold carpeted the ground at their feet. Even in the winter, there were evergreen conifers and the red bark of dogwood that helped the berries and cones to brighten the dreary landscape.
Fragrance added another dimension to our garden. One of our favorite games was to pick a flower for the rest of the family to identify by smell alone. Jasmine, roses, marigolds and petunias, daffodils and daylilies –it’s a good thing that none of us had allergies! We learned very early that some flowers were much more strongly scented at night so that they could attract their night-flying pollinators and had great fun scouting out the winged critters with a flashlight! The perfume of freshly-mown grass scented our summer evenings in the yard as we captured lightning bugs in every available jar.
My mother's and father's garden stretched over four acres. A wall to wall carpet of green lawn might have been a maintenance nightmare for some. For Mom, the tractor driver, it was an empty green canvas just waiting to be carved in wonderful ways. When my children were small visitors, she would spell out their names in giant green cursive letters as they rode on her lap. Other days, mowing back and forth in long parallel swaths seemed almost meditative to her; for the three or four hours that it took her to mow the lawn each week, she was out of reach of the phone and had only the birds and rabbits for company.
Perhaps the greatest joy that gardening brought to my mother was through the presence of the many animals that made their homes there. Pheasants and woodchucks, raccoons and
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squirrels, zillions of rabbits (which went from being "cute little bunnies "to "damn rabbits "very quickly in the Spring!) and more species of birds than any of us could keep track of built nests in the hedgerows. It took one of us thirty minutes every other day to fill all of the birdbaths and feeders.
Despite Mom’s generosity, one brazen red-winged blackbird dove at Mom's head every time she mowed the lawn next to ‘his’ maple tree. I nursed many a fallen creature that Mom found outdoors; I provided temporary quarters in shoe boxes in the garage and fed them with an eye dropper until they could fend for themselves.
Insects, despite being a food source for the birds she loved, were one aspect of gardening that made Mom decidedly uncomfortable. Those that escaped the spray of insecticide where promptly swatted or stomped.
And if an insect or spider made it into the house, it was my job to catch it and liberate it outdoors. Only ladybugs were safe. Mom had a special affection for them; she loved their polka dotted bodies and had, since childhood, been able to smell them from several feet away.
Sadly, vegetables were never a part of my parents' garden because 'they might bring bugs that will ruin the flowers'. Fortunately, my grandfather grew enough vegetables for the whole neighborhood.
Outdoor and indoor spaces blended seamlessly at our rambling stone house. There were many large windows and every room had a clear view of the garden. The same bluestone that covered the porch floor extended outdoors to cover the patio. Wrought iron furniture defined several comfortable 'rooms'. The tall fieldstone fireplace was lovely enough to serve as an altar for outdoor weddings. Indoors, most of the wallpapers were flowered and reflected the same preference for certain colors as the garden did. Bird feeders hung outside of the windows next to the dining room table. There was always a bouquet of fresh flowers in every room during the bloom season; in fall and winter, flowers, grasses and pods frequently made it into Mom's many craft projects.
Everything from wreaths to decoupage wall hangings to hand made paper contained bits and pieces of the garden. Many of them still grace our walls thirty years later!
Visits from friends and relatives always began in the garden.
Sometimes it took nearly an hour to walk around the garden to see new plants or old ones relocated(Mom moved plants as often as she moved the furniture in the house!). I remember watching the progress of the mimosa and wisteria as they grew from tiny twigs that were about my size to beautifully-flowering specimens that towered far overhead. Even today, a dozen years after mom died, I see through her eyes when I make a decision about which plant would work best in a given spot. When I come upon some wonderful surprise as I wander in my garden, I silently invite Mom to enjoy it with me. And, I thank her for teaching me to love the landscape around me.