Sunday, May 2, 2010

My Mother's Garden

I have a wonderful mechanical planter in the greenhouse. Sixteen little needles vacuum up the bouncing seeds in the vibrating tray. A switch trips the vacuum on each row as the needles rotate up and down and the little seeds drop through the metal tube and plop into their nest of peat moss and perlite. A swift trip through the little dirt machine gives them the equivalent of a cotton thermal blanket to keep them moist and toasty til the various physiological processes awake the sleeping root.
But when I was growing up, my mom did things the old fashioned way. Dixie cups of soil allowed us to start a few favored flowers indoors early, but for the most part, her flower garden came up in rows carefully sowed or sprinkled after the natural frost free date in our northern Illinois garden. Gardening on Highland Ave. involved a trip to the local nursery; I can't remember exactly what route we took, but I do recall the nursery yard of trees, the scents of chemical and peat, moisture and mulch. The garden center was a low informal shed but the seed packets were arranged symmetrically in bright array against a wall. Bins held bulbs, sets, assorted roots and who knows what else. I wasn't a gardener from birth and I certainly never helped pick out flowers or trees or shrubs at that age as I later scoured antique stores for enticing pieces of Victorian furniture. But the garden center was a wonderful place to be, full of crannies; a maze of aisles, packed dirt paths and piles of stone.
Our yard was just prettier than most of our neighbors. My mom had a long front flower bed in front of the house; my dad had built a low white fence to support the taller annuals. One of my dad's rules was to keep shrubbery away from the house proper, so instead of the traditional foundation planting of pfitzers or spirea, our house had a flagstone path with stonecrop sedum between the stones. This was never totally successful but the battle against little creepy crawly weeds was joined annually. The north side of the house was my mother's rock garden. It was a cool damp planting full of stones collected various places and planted with assorted sedums and yarrows and hostas. Following the path led to a compost pile surrounded by hedge; the back yard was contained by the same hedge. When we were little, we had a swing set in the back yard. There was also a small vegetable garden that later became a rose garden...or was it the other way around? At any rate, raising roses in that climate was a sketchy proposition and led to regular replacements of some dearly departed beauty. Perhaps seed packets didn't trip my trigger but strolling through the rows of roses, smelling the blooms, reading the names, certainly did. The Morton Arboretum had a gorgeous and extensive rose garden, the only part of a childhood visit there that I remember. 'Mr.Lincoln', red, 'Charlotte Armstrong', pink and the queen of the garden, 'Peace' were the roses that graced the kitchen.
The south side of the house faced the blistering sun and even though my folks planted a silver maple for some speedy shade, the snapdragons my mother planted for several years didn't thrive. Two other short timers were the mountain ashes with their lovely clusters of berries and finely divided foliage. Alas, year by year another branch would die off until they too were discarded. The backyard was tiny on our corner lot, but just outside the privet hedge was a tamarisk. I know now that these small trees can be terribly invasive and pesky, but in our yard, the tamarisk was an exotic with its blue green haze of foliage topped in summertime with lavender plumes. Even the name evoked far away climes.
My favorite tree of the lot was the half wild crab in the front yard bordering the fence and flower bed. It was more a shrub than a tree, low and spreading, with profuse pale pink blooms followed by large crabapples smaller than Mac apples but much the same shape. They were large enough to be picked by the bushel and I don't remember a flaw to them. Perhaps they were tough skinned; more likely my folks sprayed for pests like they did the apples. Unlike the Yellow and Red Delicious "dwarfs" in the north yard, this tree always had a crop. With experimentation, my mom developed the knack for cooking the crabapples down into a rich red tart jelly of immensely concentrated flavor. With such a quantity of apples annually, we enjoyed crabapple jam nearly year round. Occasionally, the batch would set up so quickly, we wound up with crabapple taffy. Sometimes it wouldn't set at all and we poured crabapple syrup onto our toast. One year I made some apricot jam that I considered near to the nectar of the gods, but only that one time did my jam surpass the jam of that unknown crabapple tree.

The bright and cheery annuals were simple staples of seed grown posies. Blue morning glories covered the white fence. Cosmos nodded in the summer heat. Four o' clocks grew bigger and bigger as the summer afternoons lingered on. My favorites back then were the little moss roses that fronted the border. Late in the summer we would chalk the sidewalks and driveway, or play hopscotch, or roller skate, then rest up and pick the little caps off the seed pods and sprinkle the little black spheres across the garden.

My mother stayed at home with my sister and me. She cooked every meal, cleaned, gardened, sewed, shopped. She was room mother innumerable times; I was always proud to have my vivacious and lovely mom along on field trips, or at Girl Scouts, or helping with Vacation Bible school. We traveled with my father and enjoyed relaxed summer days walking the small towns of the West, swimming in the motel pools, and reading lots and lots of books.
We were the beneficiaries of an eclectic upbringing, full of imagination, culture, hand labor, and togetherness. I had the wonderful example of a loving partnership of a marriage as my father helped with household chores and my mother joined him in his myriad interests.

Did the garden gene come from one side of my heritage...or the other? That's hard to tell, but I know that growing up with the house plants crowding the picture window, the decades old Christmas cactus strategically placed for cool winter sunshine, the weekend trips to the Forest Preserve to learn the names of the local flora, all made it just that much more likely that I would love the out of doors, the marvelous plant kingdom God has provided for our health and happiness. And so, on this Mother's Day, I want to give credit where credit is due: to memories of my mother's lovely flower garden and my lovely mother as well.

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