Springtime fuels a gardener’s obsession, where the lessons we learn can be applied to life
By Cheryl Capaldo Traylor
Early morning garden tour, cup of coffee in hand, house shoes shuffling along the garden path, I observe and reminisce about each plant I pass by. Who gifted that first bluebell; who gave the bloodroot? I kneel on the earth to sweep aside winter’s residual leaf litter and look for signs of new life. All winter long, bulbs, tubers and roots worked hard without our knowing anything of the important chemistry — no! miracle — taking place below ground. I continue my search, now crawling along the path and straying into garden beds, lifting a lily-of-the-valley to peer into the hanging bell-shaped flower. My touch releases its fragrance, and I remember this flower is a symbol of humility and charity. It is also poisonous, which helps to remind me of the giver. The lessons we learn in a garden can be applied to life. I straighten a few stones and pull some weeds, using my fingers as garden tools. My coffee is cold. I haven’t eaten breakfast yet. It’s past noon. I am a gardener obsessed.
I come by this obsession honestly. Both grandmothers were avid gardeners; one grew bleeding hearts and irises, and the other garlic and basil. The gardening gene skipped a generation as my refined mother insisted it was “man’s work.” She couldn’t understand what inspired me to jump out of bed at 5 a.m. and rush outside to the garden before my daughters woke up to get ready for school. My husband once facetiously suggested it might make more sense for me to sleep in the garden, right in the loamy beds, since I stayed outside until twilight, looking through slits in my eyelids — reptilian style — trying to bleed the last few minutes of sunlight. What can I say to defend myself? Not a damn thing. I’m guilty as charged.
I’m more of a plant collector than a garden designer. My plot of land is small, but packed with all of my favorite plants. Besides, the size of a garden doesn’t matter. What matters is the heart put into creating and nurturing one’s own piece of paradise. My postage stamp–sized garden is my haven away from the daily barrage of despairing media and tedious small talk. I’m a little embarrassed, although not much, to admit I have created an enclosed garden with a 6-foot privacy fence. My shaded hortus conclusus, Flora’s Abode, is an introvert’s escape from society. I planted a flamboyant sunny border outside the fence for passersby to enjoy. Garden writer Sydney Eddison says that gardens are a form of autobiography. Indeed.
Virginia Woolf wrote that as we grow older we enjoy spring more than autumn. Although I don’t completely agree, I do know with winter’s last exhale I become a creature awakening from hibernation. Spring, the season of renewal and resurrection, is a herald of hope. I search for flowers with the enthusiasm of a child hunting pastel eggs on Easter morning. My patience is rewarded when I spot spring beauty (Claytonia virginica). I have only one tiny bloom each year, but I wouldn’t trade that single spring harbinger for every rose plant in Sissinghurst Castle Garden.
Many of my favorite spring flowers are those ephemerals that last only a day or two then fade as quickly as they appeared, back into the earth until next spring: bloodroot, twinleaf, crocus and toothwort. Here today, gone tomorrow; such is life. I especially like the wee blooms that you have to lie flat on your back, body stretched out on the cool brown earth, one eye closed and gaze up into, like lemon-yellow fairybells (Disporum flavens) or lavender lungwort (Pulmonaria).
One of the most amusing plants in my garden is wild ginger with its concealed little brown jugs. Arisaemas — jack-in-the-pulpits and cobra lilies — also lighten my mood in a way that surprises me. Graceful, yet sturdy, with a strange beauty that’s hard to explain, the alien-looking blooms add a pop of unexpected joy under tall oaks.
There’s no such thing as a typical spring day, but I guess the same could be said of all the seasons. Esteemed plantsman Allen Lacy once said, “In a well-made garden every day is new.” Fresh blooms come, old blooms disappear. Hellebore blooms linger into spring. Once a rainbow of colors, now all green-tinged, still beautiful, still dignified, like mature Hollywood dames standing beside the new season’s starlets, brightly-dressed Indian pinks (Spigelia marilandica) and glamorous columbines (Aquilegia).
Poppies, love-in-a-mist, and larkspur are among my favorite spring-blooming annuals. I used to grow seedlings on a heating mat and nurture them through long winter days. Years ago, I decided to give that up in exchange for more time spent outside. My farmers market provides a wide variety of annuals, and I appreciate the farmers’ time and tenacity to grow the seeds that I no longer choose to. There’s only so much time in a gardener’s life, and every minute that I renounce inside is a minute I can spend elbow deep in soil.
The trilliums I remember from my West Virginia childhood were tall with maroon, three-petaled flowers. Daddy called them wake-robins. They looked nothing like the short little sweet Betsy (Trillium cuneatum) that I grow alongside mayapples, another childhood favorite.
To witness the unfurling of fiddlehead ferns is an act of devotion similar to the benediction of bees as they whirl around spicy-scented viburnum blooms. Like the bees, I dart from rose to rose taking in the intoxicating perfume. I favor the old-fashioned varieties, like Rosa “Louis Philippe,’ and ‘Zephirine Drouhin,’ but I also grow Knock Outs.
All peonies are welcome in Flora’s Abode. I grow several of the tree form, although I have more success with herbaceous hybrids. “Sarah Bernhardt” and “Bowl of Beauty” dazzle a lightly shaded corner near a thicket of butter-yellow Kerria.
False rue anemone (Enemion biternatum) shares a bed with true rue anemone (Thalictrum thalictroides). I’m not sure I could distinguish between the two anymore. Dressed in white and shades of pink, they dance in the breeze under towering oak trees. Barrenwort (Epimedium) and starflower (Ipheion uniflorum) sway nearby with more inhibition than the extroverted rue anemones. Hardy orchids in the Bletilla and Calanthe families also grow beneath the oak. Their leaves often suffer frost damage, but never the bloomstalks.
When April arrives, she brings happiness in the form of irises: cristata, fulva, germanica, japonica, louisiana, sibirica, tectorum, to name only a few. Iris cristata, a diminutive form, is my favorite of all the species. Near the irises, green tips of hostas push up through the awakening soil. My favorite, “Sum and Substance,” opens up with leaves larger than my head.
Spring-blooming shrubs, Fothergilla gardenii, Corylopsis pauciflora, and Aesculus pavia, bring a higher layer of interest to my perennial-heavy garden. Chinese fringetree (Chionanthus retusus) flowers earlier than our native species. Its fragrant blossoms fall to the ground creating the look of fresh snow, or as one garden visitor suggested: coleslaw.
How to stop gushing about this obsession? Indulge me one minute longer; I must mention Anemonella thalictroides “Cameo,” a double form that I paid more for than I will ever admit. And would gladly pay even more again. Also, the priceless flowers — bluets, bleeding hearts and trout lilies — that hold a special place in my garden, or perhaps heart is more apt.
Tulips are of utmost importance in the garden, writes revered Southern gardener Elizabeth Lawrence. She advises the best way to have them is to spend as much money as possible on them every year because they never return like their first-year glory. Alas, even after taking her advice for years, I cannot grow the oft-venerated bulbs. Two decades ago, while Mom was here on a visit, I told her about my black thumb for tulips. My mother, in a rare show of “man’s work,” pressed a spent grocery store tulip bulb into my garden soil, even as I stood by and explained it would never grow. I’ll be darned if year after year that scraggly red tulip doesn’t struggle to push its way up through the soil. I can only smile at Mom’s posthumous way of saying, “See, I told you so.” I miss her feistiness.
A prized dwarf Japanese maple once graced my garden. It gave up the ghost during an unusually dry and hot summer. The loss still lives in my heart, like the pup that’s buried where the maple grew. Both, once young and full of life, are now gone, leaving bittersweet feelings of longing and love intertwined with my heartstrings. One cannot speak about a garden, or life, without mentioning the deep losses that have pierced our hearts and punctuated our years.
It’s not only plants that inspire my gardening ecstasy, but also birds, squirrels, frogs and creepy-crawlies. Together they create a symphony inside these gates. Splash! goes the frog as he jumps into the small pond as I walk by. Bees buzzzz. Peck-peck, shuffle-shuffle as robins hop forward, then backward, kicking up dirt in search of unsuspecting earthworms. Squirrels scold when I approach too close to their dinner tables, also known as my birdfeeders.
After a long day in the garden, I run a tub full of deep, hot water to soak in, adding a hefty scoop of Epsom salt. A friend once told me a gardener can tell how successful the day was by the color of the evening’s bathwater. Is that true? Perhaps so. Afterward, I fall asleep in my recliner reading something that makes my heart happy and gives my brain more gardening ideas to dream about. Often, it’s a classic like Pamela Harper’s Time-Tested Plants or Henry Mitchell’s One Man’s Garden.
Tomorrow I will be back in my garden. Each day the sun rays intensify, and I know that one day soon summer will arrive with its unbearable heat, suffocating humidity and swarms of mosquitoes, chiggers and ticks. I’ll complain, but will still be out there every day covered in bug repellent with a homemade frozen collar wrapped around my neck. It’s what we Southern gardeners do. Like the plants in our gardens, we learn to adapt and thrive in all kinds of weather. And eagerly await the arrival of the season to which we are best suited. h
Cheryl Capaldo Traylor writes about nature, local happenings, and the unsung brilliance of everyday people. She finds inspiration in gardening, hiking and reading. She blogs at Giving Voice to My Astonishment (http://www.cherylcapaldotraylor.com).