My delight in gardening stems from my forebears, one in particular.
That one, my grandmother, turned 90 on Friday.
My Nana — Vivian to all you who aren’t kin — grew up on a farm Down East. Back in the 1920s in Maine, if you lived on a farm that meant you worked on a farm, which had real, live farm animals and fields and gardens. It meant you grew most of what you ate: You planned, nurtured, gathered and preserved it.
Listening to my grandmother talk about her parents, Benjamin and Elizabeth, is a lesson in what it means to be a hardworking Yankee, connected to the Earth and its seasons.
Nana tells about going into the pantry or down cellar and seeing all the jars filled with everything from berries in syrup to vegetables to venison and gravy, all canned by her mother. The pickle crocks were full of brine and cucumbers.
Her father had a piece of blueberry land that he only ever hand-picked. Her mother and she would go berrying, bringing back whatever was in season. I love to hear about picking “baked-apples,” a berry in the raspberry family that took me a number of years to track down because it only grows in foggy coastal areas, hence its other common name, cloudberry. The fruits of these summer-long labors would be turned into some sort of preserve and then used to make pies and desserts the rest of the year.
Seemingly nothing went to waste for seemingly everything had a use.
And never once have I heard that the family went hungry.
All my life, I’ve watched my grandmother garden. Her ease with plants likely would astound anyone who doesn’t know her because she has this inborn elegance that seems to defy dirt.
I can spend an hour digging around her yard and look like I’ve just rolled in a pigpen, while Nana comes away with slightly dirty gloves and perhaps a smudge here or there. And she’s usually closer to the soil than I am, rooting around for whatever it is we’re attempting to transplant while I haul on the shovel trying to break through the root structure.
As soon as there are flowers in season, there’s a bouquet in the house — sometimes even before there are flowers, if you count forcing the forsythia to bloom.
Perhaps it is just a single rose or even a sprig of valerian with a wildflower, but there’s always something somewhere from the outdoors.
It is straight from her that I get my love of peonies, always plentiful in lush displays in her yard. The bouquets in her house always smell better, subtle and not as overpowering as peonies often can be. My guess is the ground is sweeter and the salt air is fresher, not to mention the plants’ affinity for the lady who tends them.
She almost always has a row of nasturtiums tucked in a bed, which means August and September are nasturtium bouquets with their delightful scent filling the kitchen.
I am more than lucky to have been able to transplant a number of her plants to my yard 100 miles away. Like any plant, some things just don’t want to be moved, but we’ve managed to add an impressive number of delights over time.
Near my garden shed, I have two roses that have spread slowly but steadily. One was her mother’s rose that grew at the farm. Its magenta pink blooms always stop me short with their splendor. The other is her mother-in-law’s rose, a taller plant with light pink flowers. Both are likely more than 100 years old.
We also have several clumps of magnificent peonies that were terrifying to transplant. I don’t think I ever worried so much over any plant in my life for fear they wouldn’t survive. Those she has had since early in her marriage.
From a small clump of forget-me-nots, we now have a backyard carpeted in misty blue, a sight matched only at my grandmother’s house where it looks like a blue fog wafting at ankle level across the door yard.
Another small clump, this of white violets, has spread a bit more slowly in the front yard under the red maple, their cheery little faces with their purple whiskers held high above the vibrant green leaves.
There’s a strong showing of bishop’s weed, too, its variegated leaves looking like dappled sunlight, competing for space with the forget-me-nots.
Don’t for a moment think Nana is kicking back at 90. She still putters outside, all last season carrying water to this and that plant, tucking in a tomato or two, maybe a cucumber and a few peppers. She still has perennials filling the yard, the reward for planting so much over the years.
I know she is itching to get out and start mucking about this year, already thinking about her flower boxes and getting her geraniums and begonias up from the cellar so they can put on another beautiful display this summer.
Thank you, Nana, for giving me all this.
I love you.