05 October 2009

GARDEN GATE: Gardens Grow Communities--Three Anecdotes of Strangers in my Gardens

Many people as they walk or run or push a stroller past,
praise my gardens. (Thanks, in large part, to Mike Eagleton who designed much of my landscape, and to my crew that helps keeps it well tended.) But from time to time I have extended exchanges with strangers in my gardens.

Photo by Quincy Benton

Strangers In My Gardens

The other day, for the third time this growing season, I had a satisfying exchange with a stranger in my garden.
I had walked home slowly from yoga class, appreciative of the precious slant of warm midmorning autumn sunlight. When I had walked to class earlier that day at 7:45 a.m., I’d worn a ski cap and gloves, but when I made my way home at about 10 a.m., the day had grown warm and summery. I had plenty of work to do, but these balmy days of autumn seem almost as intoxicating as the first warm days of spring. Call it Autumn Fever.
It takes an optimist to plant this late in the season. I suppose I am mostly optimistic, but I know from experience that pansies are tough. Flowering kale, too, looks lacy and delicate, but in fact likes a bit of ice in its veins. So I’d made a sortie mission to Home Depot for a pair of pumpkins and a flat of pansies and five one-gallon pots of flowering kale.
When I should have been working at my laptop, I decided—given the beauty of the day—to work in the garden instead. I needed a gardening fix. I’d been on assignment and then had contracted a cold or flu or some such virus that had sapped me, yet I marshalled on and on, under the weather in Southern California. I had not been in my garden in nearly two weeks for any time to speak of--and both of us had suffered the separation, my garden and I.
My garden heals me. Grounds me. When I spend time in my garden, I cultivate something of my soul. Problems and concerns and other creative endeavors—words and images and ideas—simmer on the back burner. Gardening affords an incubation period. Drawn into the senses—the spicy smell of the roses, the paint box colors of the pansies, the prickle of the cosmos seeds as I collect some to share with a friend.

Pilfering memorial hollyhock seeds

So having contracted Autumn Fever, I hung out the "Gone Gardening" shingle and played hooky out of doors. I hustled from my secret garden to my front garden, schlepping my flat of pansies and replacing burgundy mums with ‘Frost Prince’ flowering kale in the ornamental concrete urns at the top of the first set of stairs in front. These urns were a gift to me many years ago. They have weathered well, and the urns stand as hybrid architectural and horticultural sentinels of my front stoop. I change out the plants in these urns several times over the season. In spring, pansies. In summer, succulents. In autumn, flowering kale, which I'd just planted and needed to water. As I walked down the stairs and headed to my spigot and garden hose on the side of my house, I spotted a scooter. The sporty thing parked just outside my porch, down the bank, in the middle of the sidewalk, looked like a joke of some kind. The scooter was definitely a girl scooter, painted the color of grape sherbet, but metallic, the color of chic lipstick or nail enamel.
I live along a busy one-way thoroughfare in a historic district of central Denver. Twice over 20 years, cars have veered off the avenue and careened through the gardens I've grown on the right-of-way alongside my house. But I’d never seen a scooter parked in the middle of my sidewalk. Curious, I looked around to see if somebody was having trouble.
Then, like a ghost appearing from a mist, a woman walked out from behind the tall pink hollyhocks of a plot I call Avenue Garden West for sake of naming a territory so as to somehow understand it and map it.
The first thing I noticed about this woman is that she held in one hand a Ziploc baggie and in the other hand a pair of scissors. Initially, I felt territorial. How dare she happen along and help herself to seeds from my garden without bothering to ask permission? I huffed a smidge, my feathers puffing, hackles up. Then, I chilled, remembering that gardeners are peaceable people, and realizing that I was flattered she was ransacking my garden for seeds. I felt profoundly appreciative, really, that somebody would want seeds from my garden enough to actually come collect them. She looked friendly enough. About my age, perhaps a bit older, she was attractive and funkily dressed with an aging-hippie-meets-urban-cool vibe.
“I’m collecting seeds to plant in a park,” she said, no apology.
I just said, “Oh.” I thought about asking whether she’d considered asking permission.
But before I could, she asked me about my hollyhocks.
I asked her about her park. She mentioned the name, a park I’d not heard of, which is not unusual since Denver has so many parks. I think the park had the name "Baca" in it. I asked her where it was. Somewhere in LoDo, she explained.
"A friend of mine committed suicide in that park a year ago in August," she said.
I cluck my tongue. “Awww,” I said, shocked, compassion rising in my throat. I was so glad I had not run her off my property earlier when I first discovered her snipping seeds sans permission. “I’m so sorry," I said. And I was.
“He was a flower guy,” the woman said matter-of-factly. “So I spent all this money putting in all these things. Tulips. All kinds of things. And nothing grew.”
“What a beautiful gesture for a memorial,” I said to her.

“Nobody has a black thumb”

She said, “I have a black thumb.”
“Nobody has a black thumb,” I said. “These hollyhocks? They're tough. They'll make it. You watch and see. And take some cosmos seeds, too.”
“Which ones are cosmos?”
“The purple ones,” I pointed to the bank behind her.
And she walked over to a sizable lavender shrub and touched a late bloom. “That’s lavender,” I said and touched one of the thistle-colored cosmos blooms. “The lavender won’t seed, but cosmos will. The seeds are prickly, so be careful when you gather them. These are prolific. They might take over the place. Just sprinkle them. They’ll self-seed. The hollyhocks, too. And maybe take some of the gallardia. Blanket flower,” I said, pointing to the corner crowded with flowers that exactly resemble the inside of a nectarine cut in half.
“I’m funny,” the lady said. “I don’t like yellow.”
“Well, some people don’t,” I said.
Again, I might have copped a "beggars can't be choosers" attitude, but I didn't. I noticed again the metallic mauve of her scooter. I did not try to talk her into any yellow. Who am I to cajole? I’ve been obsessing over an all-white garden, for goodness sake. I can relate to color quirks.
Suddenly, I grew self-conscious, aware of all the weeds poking up in the flower bed where she went after the little dried wheels of hollyhock seeds. “I need to get out here and weed,” I said.
“I don’t see weeds,"
the woman said, "I see flowers. These hollyhocks look ancient. How long have you lived here?”
“About 20 years,” I said. “The cosmos came from my mother’s garden. Help yourself. And good luck.”
“Thank you so much,” she said with sincerity; and I left her to collect her mourning seeds.

Inspiring beauty along the parkway

The second episode with strangers in my gardens happened a few weeks ago. I was working in my garden when a man and a boy stopped by on their bikes. The man introduced himself and his son. They lived a few blocks away, he said.
“I’ve been admiring your garden.”
I beamed. “I like it, too,” I said, proud as any parent.
He explained that he wanted to plant the right of way at the end of his block along our busy central Denver, one-way avenue. He asked about which plants would do well. I showed him some low water, low maintenance plants. I warned about planting things that would grow too high, interfering with sight lines along the trafficked avenue. (The way my hollyhocks unfortunately do.) I
applauded his idea, encouraged him to pursue his beautification plan, even offered to help if he needed more assistance.
I showed his young son the seeds of several plants, explaining that they’d all started from tiny seeds.
When I showed him one hollyhock seed and then showed him the towering, thick-stemmed hollyhocks with all the colorful little hoop skirt blossoms, the boy's eyes went round. He said, “Wwwwwwow!"
My sentiments exactly.

Begging a flower for a lover

And the first heart-warming incident in this string of encounters with strangers in my gardens happened last spring. While working in my garden, a young man stopped by. He, too, had been admiring my garden. He was formal, polite, enthusiastic. “I drive by here every day on my way to my girlfriend's,” said the young Romeo, probably in his 20s. (Difficult for me to judge age anymore, since I just turned 49, a blinding turnstile age.) At any rate, the Don Juan plead his case, “I was thinking how happy my girlfriend would be if I could bring her just one of those beautiful flowers.”
“The tulips?” I asked, a bit incredulous that he had stopped to beg a flower for his lover.
“Just one?” he pleaded.
How could I refuse so romantic a gesture?
“You pick it,” I said. And he did.
I wish I could have seen the look on his lover's face when he showed up with that flower. I wish I could have seen what she'd done with it. Was it in a pretty vase on the bureau in her bedroom? Atop her bathroom sink? The centerpiece of her dining room table? I could only hope she would cherish the tulip as much as her sweetheart had. I pray the tulips return next spring. I will gladly share another and another and another.

If you grow a garden, know that your garden is not for you alone, but for all who would look upon it. All who would steal its seeds. All who would imitate your edge of Eden. All who would beg a flower for a lover.

For more greenthumb matters, please visit my Examiner.com page, where I serve as Denver Flower and Gardening Examiner. Just click here to link.

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