The proverb that it’s an ill wind that blows no good proved true for me and a colleague during the recession.
The highly skilled garden writer at the design magazine where I worked as a general editor was regretfully let go, and I inherited her duties on top of my own (with no change in title or compensation, harrumph).
Though I dutifully set out geraniums every spring, I didn’t know a dahlia from a delphinium. So I had to throw myself on the mercy of experts to identify flowers for photography captions. I moaned about touring gardens in the Texas heat. I was underwhelmed by garden shows with dreary displays of ergonomic tools and mosses. Even the word “sphagnum” annoyed me with its spitty unpronounceability.
Then, surprise guests started crashing my pity party, demanding to be fed and hydrated. Bulbs, plants and flowers from fancy nurseries arrived in my work cubby in big brown boxes, so many that it was like the scene in “Miracle on 34th Street,” where the multitudinous letters from Santa are dumped in the courtroom.
Here a daff, there a hibiscus, everywhere a petunia. They would croak if I didn’t deal with them, so I dug holes in my yard with a serving spoon and poked them in willy-nilly.
Soon, the primitive wonder of sticking something into the ground and seeing something else arise or evolve kicked in. I started getting up early to water before work and staying up late to drool over spring blooms online the way I once did over spring frocks.
Gardening offers life lessons in so many arenas:
Warcraft: This week, when I stepped out early to get the paper, a trio of deer as elegant, aloof and slightly ticked-off looking as runway models were standing by my raised bed in the front, where they had dug up and munched the bulbs of my scarlet and gold tulips (Iowa State Cyclones fan). Since waterboarding wasn’t an option I scurried to Steve’s Ace Hardware as soon as it opened to buy fox urine granules as a scent deterrent. Any legal means.
Economy: A booming underground bartering system is at play among gardeners in their chancy work: I see your iris and raise you two peonies.
Mathematics: Oy. If I have 10 crocus bulbs that need to be planted 2 to 4 inches apart and they can’t crowd my hyacinths, how much space do I need? To paraphrase Dr. Seuss, I puzzle ’til my puzzler is sore.
Neighborliness: Chatting with passersby adds a little soul to a subdivision. Nearly everyone has a cheery word for a weeder with hands in the dirt and rump in the air.
Chemistry: I use old-time banana peels along with fertilizers to make my roses lush, and I bury rusty nails as well as using aluminum sulfate solution to turn my hydrangeas blue. Whatever works.
Family ties: In the process of selling my mother’s house, it leavened the sadness to dig up a few ferns from around her foundation (originally transplanted from Kansas City, Mo., to Des Moines by my grandmother in the 1950s) up to my house in Ames, Iowa. I nearly gave up on them the first spring, but now their lacy fronds greet my grandchildren.
Geography: After almost watering my lavender to death, I learned there is a reason that it thrives in the sun baked soil of Provence.
Timing: I play a cat-and-mouse game with a nursery that operates only a few weeks in spring like Shangri-la, strategizing the time when I should snag its gorgeous hanging baskets of dragonwing begonias (after danger of frost but before other gardeners nab them).
Poetry: I love the romantic names of flowers like Lady’s Mantle, Forget-Me-Not and Sweet William, which makes me think of a shy bachelor brother who never left the farm.
Metaphor: Deadheading is like cleaning the soul: The plant won’t go to seed, and new things will flower.
Gardening has become the thing I lose myself in entirely, hour after grubby hour. As for my talented colleague who lost her job, her story, too, ended in spectacular bloom. After a brief drought, she was named editor-in-chief of one of the nation’s top garden magazines.
To everything, there is a season.
Rebecca Christian is freelance writer from Ames, Iowa.