My gardener happens to be my husband. He disappears into the landscape, in the middle of conversations, tracks gravel across my newly vacuumed living room carpet, and dusts bits of leaves off his clothes onto our dining room table when sitting down to supper. At the end of the month our credit card bill lists seed, clay pots, clippers, soil mix, sprinklers, and I am still trying to finish the conversation I started three weeks ago about the pipe that is leaking in the bathroom. For better or for worse, I am married to my gardener.
My introduction to horticulture began in Santa Cruz thirty-four years ago. As a new bride I learned from my husband how to care for an established Boston fern, a large dumb cane, a delicate maidenhair fern, and a flourishing spider plant. He quickly taught me the routine. At the time I knew very little about plants, only what I had learned from my mother, who salvaged withered stems and seedlings. She would place them in canning jars filled with water, and set them on the windowsill to root in her sunny mid-western breakfast room. Once married, I found myself gingerly lowering entire potted plants into the bathtub every month to flush salts from their soil. After misting their leaves, I moved these beauties to the patio for sun and feeding. Since this horticultural initiation three decades ago my husband and I have lived in three homes, cultivated four gardens, had a brief stint in the landscaping business, and started a nursery.
Reticence and hesitation are two words that are never uttered in reference to the gardens we have tended together. Almost every weekend, as new homeowners, we were outside early filling pots with soil for bedding plants, trimming vines on the trellis, transplanting asparagus ferns to tubs, pruning trees, or setting brick walkways. On the way home from town one afternoon we came upon a young three-foot oak tree in the middle of the road, the casualty of a storm that winter, where rainwater ran off already saturated soil, resulting in a subsequent landslide. My husband convinced me that it would fit into the back seat of our Volkswagen Bug, roots and all. The following weekend we had the thriving adolescent tree planted in a wine barrel on our deck.
Our first landscape design and installation in those early years was a veritable metamorphosis completed in one weekend. Launching into the backyard of the unsuspecting Palo Alto client, we tore out bushes, filled wheelbarrows with weeds, and made multiple trips to the dump, disposing of the old. Bringing in new plants, we tilled the soil, transplanted fifteen-gallon western azaleas, and rolled out emerald green sod. At the end of the day the yard was transformed, with little reference to its former appearance. Lending a lush and restful ambiance to the homeowner’s residence, it was quite different from what we came to cultivate in our own garden years later.
Somewhere along the way other horticulturists caught wind of my gardener’s infectious enthusiasm. He became a teacher and has been speaking, planting, and influencing community and private gardens ever since. It is a fulfilling life doing this work, being involved, and watching gardens evolve and mature. Putting the obvious benefits of improved environment, property values, and aesthetics aside, gardening is simply pleasurable. Having your hands in the soil, nurturing and watching plants grow, has proven to be a therapeutic pastime that soothes a cluttered mind.
The challenges for me are, the disappearances of my husband when I am in mid-sentence, the bits of leaves that fall from his hair to the dinner table like sprinkles of sprouts, and the endless stream of woodchips and gravel that lead from our front door to my home office, that twice burned up the engine of my vacuum cleaner. Add to this the bright clean acorns that I find wedged under the agitator in the washing machine after finishing a load of laundry, and the pots of seed on the stove scarifying at a rolling boil, that I have mistaken once or twice for lentil soup. It could be worse. At the beginning there were more cuttings in the refrigerator than groceries, an assortment of insects in plastic bags, and an occasional dead gopher in the freezer, for a plant materials, entomology, and biology seminar respectively.
The spark to write this piece came to me one morning as I was ironing one of my gardener’s shirts. There had been no time to pick up the ones at the cleaners before his scheduled speaking engagement. I noticed that all the buttons on the shirt were broken in half and the collar frayed. Looking around the house I saw that a pair of his shoes were in every room, rubber clogs, flip flops, muddy boots, running shoes, worn out loafers, all looking as if the owner had walked right out of them on his way out the door to our garden. A pile of clothes had grown in the corner of our bedroom. The ends of hangers were flipped up haphazardly in the clothes closet with plastic bags pulled from the laundered shirts and billowing from the closet floor like parachutes. The only reason his shirts are done at the laundry is that our son complained about his father’s wrinkled appearance, and I threatened to give up ironing all together. The duffle from his last trip to a southern California symposium remains on the living room sofa unpacked.
We have two gardens now, and I think some gardeners would agree that a marriage of thirty-four years is not unlike a mature garden. Hills and valleys can be found in both. There is the work of tending, weeding, watering, feeding, and losses in extreme or turbulent weather. Conversely, the oak tree that my husband and I planted in a tub almost three decades ago is now in the ground, grown, vigorous, and casting shade in our back yard. I suppose success requires effort and daily commitment in a marriage, just as it does in gardening. For my own comfort I thought of suggesting that my husband purchase one of those scooters to facilitate moving from one of our gardens to the other. Maybe, he could get around faster, and I could finish some of my conversations with him.
Admittedly I reap the rewards of his horticultural interests, and I humbly thank his mother, a gardener herself, and her father before her, who started the whole thing by taking my husband to the Los Angeles Arboretum every Sunday when he was a little boy. What could be more comforting than soft textured views at every window, the shade of an oak woodland, and the sound of hummingbird wings, in a natural and beautiful environment called home. Yet, when my husband awakens on a Saturday morning, itching to get outside, dresses in socks, shoes, shirt and briefs, and eagerly starts out the front door, with pruning shearers in hand…but forgetting his trousers….well….what can I say….I am married to my gardener.