We are having a rare bout of cold weather in North Florida. And when I say “cold”, I am not using the regional definition, that is, anything under 60 degrees Fahrenheit. I am talking twenties and thirties here. Snow was reported. I had to scrape frost off my car. Such things are not common around these parts.
What better time, then, to consider the pleasures of gardening, or alternatively, of having someone who gardens for you? These past few days, I’ve had to take much of my garden indoors. Actually, I was lucky enough to have my daughter volunteer to do it. This is what my dining room looks like now:
My Own Little Piece of Germany
Geraniums don’t always appreciate our North Florida heat and humidity. But I like them because they are cheerful and hardy in cooler weather, and because they remind me of Germany. It seems to me, in my admittedly selective and somewhat cloudy memory, that when I was there, every window box in Germany flaunted geraniums, at least in the spring and summer. And the image of Fachwerkhaeuser, or half-timber houses, with window boxes full of red geraniums—well that’s just iconic.
So, I have my own little piece of Germany right here in Florida, while its actually nippy enough, and grey and cloudy enough, to pretend it was Germany, while we still have the taste of tinned Lebkuchen from Nuremburg lingering on our tongues, and the Christmas tree still stands in the living room. That is heartwarming indeed.
Not from Me
We didn’t always have a garden.
My mother-in-law was a gardener, with huge red amaryllises standing sentry at the entrance to the backyard, and roses lining the fence that separated the house from the field and woods beyond. She kept a little greenhouse in the sunroom, or “Florida room” as we call them here: an un-air-conditioned space with a sliding glass door and screen windows to let the light and humidity in. It looked like a jungle, and she would walk through, wearing her loose-fitting muumuu, with a cigarette trailing from her lips, and water each plant carefully, as if it were one of her children.
My daughter would probably frown on exposing plants to nicotine like this. She disdains this practice nearly as much as she disdains the expression “green thumb.” Like the word “talent,” when used to describe artists, this expression conveys the sense of an unearned “gift,” and therefore minimizes the importance that effort and education play, in the degree of excellence that a person achieves.
Still, she clearly inherited this penchant for plants from somewhere. And it was not from me.
The Raising of a Gardener
Her first independent attempt, as far as I recall, was growing a morning glory from seed. She was attracted to this plant, as a curious middleschooler, at least in part by the rumor that the seeds were supposedly hallucinogenic. She has since informed me that such properties are excised from the morning glory seeds before they are ever sold to the public.
Soon, my porch was covered with plant pots filled with greenery at various stages of growth.
Before I knew it, my daughter was in college and working in an organic garden. My back yard held a number of raised beds, and we feasted on broccoli, collards, micro-greens grown in a shallow cardboard box, and fresh basil, thyme and rosemary. She even harvested hibiscus flowers for tea.
She grew sweet potatoes and chives and asparagus, though it only produced one lone shoot at a time. But oh, it was delicious! She grew mustard greens (not a hit) and carrots and a teepee of peas, as glorious for the flavor of the fruit– pods and all–as for the luxurious flowers. Squash grew up our swing set as the kids grew older. And one year, when the fires were close enough to make the air smoky, a beautiful but inedible purplish blue flowered pea vine climbed up, and cradled a fuzzy sleeping bumble bee in its blossom.
Of course, children grow up and move out, and their visits become less frequent. We don’t have as much home-grown food as before, as my daughter’s interests have shifted from edibles to ornamentals. I, sadly, did not have the stamina or know-how to mimic her efforts, nor did any of the other children have her same passion.
But what beauty resulted! My garden was carpeted with deep bluish-purple euphorbia ground cover flowers. She revived my neglected roses and added more. She introduced plants I had never heard of, populating the landscape with curious names. Cat’s whisker. Toad lily. Swamp mallow.
And now geraniums. Lovely geraniums, which I was certain would never grow here. But here we are, and my dining room is full of them.
Secrets Locked Away
I remember when the girls were small (and there were only the two girls), I read to them at night from The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett. It is clearly time for me to read it again, because I keep mixing up the details of the book with her other children’s classic, The Little Princess. As most books of that era, some parts of it may offend modern sensibilities. But the part I recall is the garden itself, and how it was surrounded by a wall, and had a door with a lock and key, I believe. It was indeed a secret, and had been closed and neglected for many years, until the girl and her friend, who I believe was a young boy in a wheel chair, came to rescue it from oblivion.
Much like my own dear girl has done for my garden, which surely would have been consigned to oblivion, full of box woods and azaleas, like any other North Florida patch of real estate, had it been left to me.
While she was still an art student in college, my young gardening daughter made a huge and magnificent woodblock print, which stands in the only spot in our home with a ceiling tall enough for it. Its topic? A walled garden. In Latin, a hortus conclusus.
At the base of the print, which I recently had stretched over a frame, is an inscription:
Hortus Conclusus soror mea sponsa
Hortus Conclusus fons signatus.
(A garden enclosed is my sister, my spouse,
A garden enclosed, a fountain sealed up.)
This quote apparently comes from the Song of Songs (4:12) in the Old Testament. A different translation of the same words reads: “You are a garden enclosed, my sister, my spouse, an enclosed garden, a fountain sealed.” This seems more in keeping with the rest of the passage, which is phrased as a love poem, admiring all of a woman’s various qualities. But it is interesting to think of the garden, itself, possessing the qualities of enclosure and protection, of being off limits and unknown.
There is something about gardens. They make our lives richer and invigorate us to pursue the rest of the dull, often lifeless tasks we must do day to day. I hope that you have access to a garden, and hope that some of you are gardeners, yourselves. Or that you, like me, are growing your own.
One more quote:
If you look the right way, you can see the whole world is a garden.
Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden.