Once I Was a Clueless Gardener

You could probably learn to garden by yourself. But where's the fun in that?

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My favorite picture of my mother is a yellowed snapshot taken when she was just a little older than I am now. She's wearing shorts and a sleeveless cotton blouse, kneeling in one of her many flowerbeds. Caught by surprise, she's laughing up at the camera, and you can see on her face how happy it makes her to coax flowers out of the ground.

As gardeners go, Mama's a diehard. Every year, she breaks out the seed catalogs about five minutes after the Christmas decorations come down. By March her dining room is a full-blown greenhouse and she has Daddy digging holes for shrubbery and laying out beds for all the annuals she'll plant in April.

I inherited her love of digging in the dirt, but my green gene was dormant for a few decades. Actually, I come from a long line of gardeners, not only in my family but also in the rural community where I grew up. It's one of my greatest regrets that when I lived there and could've soaked up generations of plant knowledge, I wasn't the least bit interested.

As a teenager, I was too busy sweating prom dates, trying to coax my poker-straight hair into a Charlie's Angels back flip, and dreaming of the glamorous life I would surely lead if I could ever get out of high school. Then it was on to college and years of apartment dwelling. It wasn't until I bought my first house in the suburbs that I realized what it felt like to have my very own yard—and how much I wanted to fill it with the flowers of my childhood.

Overnight, I found myself shopping for azaleas with the fervor I had once reserved for shoe sales. I was constantly on the phone with the folks back home. Could I have a cutting from that rose bush at the cemetery? And from Miss Lillian's blue hydrangea? Is it hard to plant a daylily? Do gardenias take a lot of sun? Why won't my petunias bloom?

Being clueless has its advantages. It taught me the best part of gardening: It's communal. Sure, you could read books and get an academic understanding of how to plant, prune, and propagate. But you'd miss the nuances, the instincts that come only with years of hands in soil. To truly grasp the ways of the 'Don Juan' climbing rose, you need to spend some time in the company of experienced gardeners.

I've done my best to make up for lost time. I carefully mimicked my mother's every move when we set the first rose bushes in my new yard. (That little mound of dirt in the hole is very important.) I quizzed Aunt Grace about phlox and ferns, successfully transplanted some of Aunt Vivian's daffodils, and made myself a mental note to get some honeysuckle going so I could cut it and scatter it through the house in glasses of water, just like my grandmother did. (My husband does not understand my affinity for vines that can swallow a house, but he's working through that as best he can.)

The more I garden, the more I associate the things I plant with the people who taught me to grow them. Every bloom in my garden connects me with memories of people I love. So my father-in-law has promised me some of his daylilies, and a dear neighbor is teaching me how to propagate hydrangeas.

One day, I hope my husband and I can be the ones passing it on and helping newcomers to the neighborhood get their gardens going. I'd love for us to become "that sweet old couple down the street"—the ones with the beautiful flowers, the quirky sun hats, and a garden gate that's always open to clueless whippersnappers who can't figure out how the wisteria ate their SUV.

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