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In My Garden On My Birthday

My sister, the Writing Diva (, sent me a list of all the things she can't get me for my upcoming birthday that I usually ask for – world peace and the like. Black Man Not Blogging, on the other hand, keeps trying to make a big to-do of it, dangling the prospect of stays at some of my favorite B&B’s – the Hill House Inn in Mendocino, the Deer Creek Inn in Nevada City. For me, it’s just not that complicated.

I just want to spend the day in my yard.

I’m a novice gardener. I didn’t really get into gardening until about eight years ago, but I enjoy taking a vision of perennials in my head (I don’t bother with annuals or shrubs anymore) and making it a visible, tangible reality. That’s not to say I haven’t killed a few plants along the way to following my vision. But if you’re not killing plants, you’re probably not really gardening. Gardening is in part about taking chances – planting something you think you’re incapable of nurturing and seeing what happens. Sometimes you surprise yourself.

I think the seed for gardening was planted in my mind during my early childhood. Our next-door neighbor, Mr. Hawkins, had a garden that took up his entire back yard – vegetables, flowers, maybe even a fruit tree or two. No grass for him, no sirree. I just remember being allowed to roam free in his garden and water things as a four year-old, and it was all just so beautiful to me, even the corn stalks that towered over me. I didn’t know at the time that he was actually babysitting me for short stints while my mother ran errands. I just thought I was being allowed the privilege of visiting and playing in his garden.

The idea of gardening was further nurtured when I studied in Spain. You know all those photos you see of window boxes overflowing with fire engine-red geraniums perched above narrow, cobblestone-paved streets in the south of Spain? Well, they’re for real. Saw them with my own two eyes. If something as small as a window box could add that much of a visual punch of color, imagine what an entire yard could do?

It is when I lived in Mississippi that I realized that many of the plants and trees I was familiar with in California actually had a scent. Wisteria, irises, magnolias, and tulip trees all have a scent in the South; they don’t in California. Even plants that have a scent in California, jasmine and gardenias, aren’t nearly as fragrant as they are in the South. I don’t know what it is about the South, but flowers just smell better there. I wanted to re-create those scents in my own garden one day.

What really got me going was living near Denver. Denver, as most of Colorado, has a shorter growing season than California. But, oh, what a growing season it is! Once that last frost has passed, usually near the end of May, folks nearly run over each other at the Home Depot to get plants and put them in the ground. (You can always tell the novices because they mistake the first run of warm days in April as the end of the frost season and start planting, despite the fact that July is the only month where there hasn’t been snow in Denver.) The public parks, especially Washington Park, are suddenly awash in color. And the Denver Botanic Garden just puts on a veritable show. It’s as if the flowers know they only have so much time to bloom, and they get on with it in style.

BMNB’s townhome near Denver had a small patio, no back yard. I made the most of it – container gardening. I planted snapdragons, daisies, purple sage, a purple clematis vine, red coreopsis, just about anything with vibrant color. I bought patio furniture. I made outdoor candles using Mason jars, white sand, tiny sea shells, and scented votives. BMNB came to realize that the patio could be more than just a slab of concrete – it became our own little botanic garden, our own little oasis. We bought a Hibachi and grilled, or just spent time there talking at the end of the day.

I’ve since planted gardens everywhere I’ve lived – with my oldest sister (who, for some reason, can’t get past the unfortunate choice of the ubiquitous day lily, which, to me, lacks style and attracts too many bumble bees), while renting, and now, at my own home. Except for my sister’s garden, where I actually dug up all her crappy soil and replaced it (if California’s number one industry is agricultural, why is it that I’ve never lived anywhere in California that had good soil?), I’ve always gardened on the cheap – buying compost at the Dollar Tree, not paying more than $5 per plant, planting seeds and bulbs purchased from the Dollar Tree or Winco when possible. And although the results weren’t always Architectural Digest-worthy, they’ve been pleasing to me.

So now that I’m in my own house, I want to create the same visual oasis for myself as I have for other people’s property. I subscribe to the same gardening ethos as the Moors, who built the Alhambra in Spain – that a garden should look, smell, and sound good. The Alhambra has one garden that has a fountain that spills over into a tiny creek that flows through the middle of two rows of orange trees. The Moors even “tuned” the fountain so it would make a soothing, gurgling sound, and the orange trees were planted to provide the sweet scent of orange blossoms in the spring. I aim for that in my own yard, and I planted nine jasmine plants just for the scent – and to hide that dreadful back retaining wall that holds up my neighbor’s yard. Inspired by a mailbox I saw in Mississippi, I planted an Alice du Pont mandevilla (who was Alice du Pont, anyway?). The mailbox, an antiquated type sitting on a post, was enveloped in this vine with its cheery pink blooms. I’ve always wanted one.

I also transplanted some of what I call my “Lazarus plants”: Plants I brought with me in pots from our last rental that I neglected since we moved in. I might have thrown them out but for the sage advice of BMNB: "If they're green, they're not dead." Here’s hoping that my pink jasmine, bower vine, and climbing rose will rise from the dead and thrive on the new trellises I bought. On sale.

So, on my birthday, I intend to slap some Banana Boat sunblock on my arms, some Aveeno oil-free sunblock on my face, put on my torn khakis, a worn-out “Nelson Mandela” t-shirt, and some old tennis shoes, and start digging up shrubs not of my choosing (Heavenly Bamboo, anyone?) in order to plant some perennials of my choosing (English lavender, Mexican sage) and some fragrant roses under my kitchen window to go with the others I transplanted from our last rental. I can’t think of a better way to spend my birthday.

NB: Just found out – Alice du Pont is poisonous. I advise doing your research in advance before planting stuff. That’s why I’m still a novice gardener.


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