A place where friendship grows

Garden: The plants that surround a home have come together in a botanical quilt contributed by family and friends.

August 22, 1999|By Nancy Taylor Robson | Nancy Taylor Robson,Special to the Sun

Some people look around their gardens and see flowers. I look around and see the faces of family and friends. My garden is an album of horticultural gifts, cast-offs and "thank offerings" that remind me of all the people who have had a hand in its making.

Gardening is communal. I didn't realize it when I married and moved into an old house on the Eastern Shore with a yard. On her first visit, my mother arrived with some purple bearded iris (which she always called flags) that she had dug from her own garden. Together we planted them, then she pressed them down into the soil with her foot.

"You have to let the roots know who's boss," she told me. Since then, I've always let the roots know who's boss. (Often, the roots disagree, but I always observe the ritual and think of my mother.)

Other friends shared plants. Janine gave me chunks of the ancient peonies that banked her old frame house overlooking the river. Toppy, then 66, took an ax to her overgrown French hydrangeas, severing three roots for the gravely north side of our house where each summer they were covered with lacy blue blooms. Mom returned with spiderwort, myrtle and pachysandra. My father-in-law brought an azalea. My mother-in-law brought two boxwoods. Harry, one of the deckhands on the ocean-going tug on which my husband, Gary, and I worked, gave us 50 raspberry canes that grew into a productive hedge. Each time I picked berries, I'd think of Harry.

When we moved to another house nearby, we were reluctant to abandon our donated garden. Fortunately, the plants and flowers had gone forth and multiplied, so we dug offshoots and put them into boxes covered with dampened newspaper. Clumps of raspberry, iris, peony, spiderwort, pachysandra, myrtle and gloriosa daisy moved right along with the boxes of books.

The newly planted bits of our old garden grew and were joined by new plants. Miss Frances, from whom we bought our first house, one day took me out back to see the pond she had made (at age 70) by sinking an antique bathtub into the ground beneath a shade tree. Growing in its midst was a tall clutch of beardless yellow iris.

"Aren't those nice!" I exclaimed, marveling at what looked like chips of sunlight glinting through dark green leaves.

"Here," she said, stumping off to get a spade. "I'll dig you some."

The iris now grace several otherwise troublesome spots in my yard.

For Mother's Day one year, my father-in-law brought a rhododendron that has white blossoms with wine-colored throats -- one of a kind, like my late father-in-law. Each spring I watch it bloom and give thanks for the affection and growth in our sometimes prickly relationship. At the feet of the rhododendron are three azaleas that local handyman Jim gave me. Nearly blind, Jim initiated our connection by borrowing $10.

"I'll pay you back next week," he told me. "And if you ever need any help, give me a call."

Thirteen years later, he's repaid and re-borrowed the same $10 dozens of times. To help him repay the loans, I find odd jobs for him to do, which cover the most recent loan and earn him a little more. Invariably, he returns the following week to reborrow $10. I gave him my father's overcoat the year Pop died. The azaleas, cast-offs from a nursery for whom he does odd jobs, are Jim's way of saying thanks.

My dear friend Marcy passes along spares from her garden design business. The Lenten rose that blooms in February by the office window, the flowering of hope in a forlorn month, is from her. So is my beautiful and nearly maintenance-free front garden. She surveyed the patch of lawn that sits eight feet from a road where salt in winter and exhaust year-round killed everything I planted.

"Those won't work," she said, shaking her head at the dying shrubbery. "I'll get you things that will."

She did. And they thrive right along with our friendship. The beautiful nandina was a gift from John, a fellow church parishioner. I admired the scent, and shortly afterward he presented me with two potted specimens dug from his own beds. The poppies -- like orange crepe paper on furry stalks -- are from Miss Louise, whose ancestors built our 200-year-old house. The miniature roses were gifts from Pat, who owned a miniature rose farm down the road. The yucca was from Connie. The Shasta daisies came from Martha, whose loving presence in our lives helps fill the void left when my mother died.

Tina James, a high school classmate and abiding friend, is metaphorically all over my gardens. When we moved, she gave me two potted Magic Evening Primroses, the horticultural rediscovery that Southern Exposure Seed Exchange (which now sells the seed) named for her. The original primroses' descendants continue to reseed, providing a spectacular floral fireworks display at summer's beginning and end.

Looking at it now, I realize that this botanical memory-quilt was inevitable. Gardeners are sharers. We urge clumps of divided corms on neighbors who admire them in bloom, thrust packets of saved seed, the germ of life renewed, into the hands of grieving friends, and take little slips from our plants to dinner parties. These living gifts simultaneously plant us in other gardens, other botanical memory-quilts, and nurture the beauty in our world. It's how we keep love alive.

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