Flowering despite clumps in garden of life

Essay: It takes more than long winters, mice, car trouble and injury to keep a determined gardener from seedling satisfaction.

In The Garden

April 29, 2001|By Nancy Taylor Robson | Nancy Taylor Robson,Special to the Sun

Winter seemed to be a permanent fixture this year. By the end of February, I was discouraged.

The Lenten rose (helleborus), which usually blooms around Valentine's Day, had barely sent up shoots. Early daffodils hung fire, and the forsythia waved naked whips. But, despite appearances, I trusted that spring would come eventually. And because for the first time in 18 years I am no longer chauffeuring my children since they both drive, (which frees big chunks of time), I imagined creating a horticultural masterpiece. I ordered seeds and plants.

But by mid-March, there was still no sign of spring, and I was suddenly called back to full-time duty as wife and mom. Gardening plans were put on hold. First, my son Matt crashed the car in a snowstorm on the way home from school. He was fine; the car was not. Instead of setting up the temporary greenhouse, I spent two weeks trying to explain to the insurance company, which had summarily "totaled" the car, that I wanted to have it fixed -- gardeners are inveterate recyclers.

Immersed in a crash course in insurance-speak and circular logic, I didn't think I had the energy to even begin my botanical Monet, let alone maintain it. But one night, between a load of laundry and supper, I managed to seed one flat with a variety of basils -- lemon, lime, piccolo, ruby, and huge green ruffles. A concrete, if limited, step toward my original gardening goal.

In a few days, seedlings shot up and unfolded handsome leaves.

Then, overnight, they disappeared.

I thought I'd imagined their existence. I planted more. They came up, grew seed leaves and disappeared again. I'd lost my touch. Or maybe the Seedling Genie had rescinded my green thumb. I finally asked a friend, who starts whole fields of seedlings under lights in her basement, for a diagnosis.

She responded with one word: mice.

By the following night, I had caught a well-fed mouse and planted new seeds. A week later, I had basil again. Setback surmounted. Perhaps I could still manage a modified masterpiece. I anticipated more flats, but before I could plant them, something else happened.

At midnight, the night before my husband, Gary, was due home from a month in the Gulf of Mexico, the phone rang. He had had an accident on the tugboat on which he is captain. Suddenly, we were dealing with an unexpected flight to a Philadelphia bone specialist, emergency surgery, and a long recuperation. In the space of a few hours, the garden slid way down on the list of priorities -- or so it seemed.

But the day after a rather dramatic 48 hours of car and plane rides, hospitals and no sleep, I was crouched by the back fence, poking a row of peas into the ground.

In some ways, it was an act of defiance -- dishes sat in the sink, the dogs desperately needed walking, and my ragged van was 3,000 miles overdue for an oil change. Yet that single act, surrounded on three sides by fields that have grown food and wildflowers for more than 200 years, offered a sense of continuity that transcended temporary obstacles. It helped.

And while out there, I discovered a tiny clump of lemon balm, a culinary gift. I picked some to add to the salad. On the way back inside, I noticed that the 'Princess Irene' tulips, a gorgeous apricot coral streaked with smoky purple that I had planted last fall, were pushing through the ground in the oak tree garden. And at the kitchen step the shawl-leafed grape hyacinths (Muscari latifolium ), and two 'Ice Cup' narcissus were opening blooms. I felt better.

Spring was coming. It would create its own masterpiece.

By the first of April, the car was fixed and back on the road, and Gary was safely ensconced in a bed in the living room where life goes on around him. The four of us eat on our laps on the bed and in nearby chairs, watch TV -- despite our wildly disparate tastes -- and laugh.

This concentrated togetherness, though unsought, is a blessing before Matt goes off to college and his sister Abby follows soon on his heels.

And spring is finally here. The Lenten rose is nearly finished, while narcissus and daffodils are in full bloom and the Japonica is dotted with rose-colored blossoms.

The mauve-tinged cups of the tulip tree fill the back yard with perfume. Although I won't make a Monet this year, at every opportunity, I'm out in the garden anyway, seeding radish and mesclun, carefully transplanting volunteer evening primroses with their long dandelion-like tap roots, and doing battle with the thistles.

Just being there restores me, connects me to cycles of renewal far larger than the temporary difficulties of my own life. Inside, Gary is healing, making his way around the house on his own. Last weekend, we sat by the garden, listening to the birds and making plans for the future. Hope, like spring, has returned.

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