Inch by Inch

June 24, 2013

Twenty-three years ago, a walnut tree shaded a former farmhouse in southwest Portland when a blended family of eight moved in. In time, the six children grew up and moved away. The tree retired from duty and died. The couple in the house, Diane and Scott, grieved and cut it down. In its place they created a miniature paradise.

Goldfish swim in a small pond that reflects a katsura tree:Katsura tree reflected in pond

Twenty different kinds of ferns also live in this shady spot, transplanted (with encouragement and permission) from the old Lewis and Clark College library. There’s a fig tree in a pot, oxalis, paved stones and steps and paths, all presided over, as is the whole yard, by an Ingrid Bergman rose, perhaps named for the velvety red of her lips in this photograph:

A rose without a cigarette smells so much sweeter.

A rose without a cigarette smells so much sweeter.

Ingrid Bergman close-up.

Ingrid Bergman close-up.

On a recent sunny day, Diane and Scott welcomed Alice to their garden with fresh strawberries and home-made banana bread. The visit would take her from the pond all the way around to the vegetable garden, but it started with some educational conversation under the katsura’s shade. Since North Dakota isn’t known for its ferns, Diane (also born in the Midwest) started there, bringing Alice first a maidenhair fern and then a tatting fern.

Alice and Diane in conversation about ferns.

Alice and Diane in conversation about ferns.

Alice liked the tatting fern all right, but she preferred the delicate maidenhair ferns. There’s quite a variety of them.

maidenhair ferns

And she fell hard for the dainty oxalis, pink and white.

Alice and Diane and pink and white oxalis

Soon a small bouquet began to come together, including the tatting fern, a couple of different kinds of maidenhair ferns, and the oxalis. It was hard to leave this spot, but there was more to see.

Here's Scott enjoying the shade.

Here’s Scott enjoying the shade.

Off we went, into the sun and the company of more flowers. Here are some examples of what she saw:

The sweetest smelling plant in the garden (in my opinion) - mock orange.

The sweetest smelling plant in the garden (in my opinion) – mock orange.

Lilies, evening primrose, rose campion.

Lilies, evening primrose, rose campion.

White astilbe, sweet william, foxglove, delphinium, lady's mantle.

White astilbe, sweet william, foxglove, Delphinium, lady’s mantle.

The paths were a challenge for the walker and balance, but Alice didn’t want to stop. Di and Scott watched over her to prevent any falls.

Alice leads Scott down the garden path.

Alice leads Scott down the garden path.

She remembered that the calla lily was my father’s favorite flower, but for her, the smaller a flower’s petal, the more it called to her.Alice stops for a closer look.

At one point she turned to Diane and asked, “Did you two plant all this?”

Sudden disbelief.

Sudden disbelief.

When they first moved into the 100 year-old farmhouse, Scott reclaimed the yard from an enormous heap of organic material that he turned into their original compost pile.

Today, the composting activity looks like this:





“We did that,” Alice said, but she hadn’t heard the term “composting” until now. This word fits easily into almost any Oregon conversation, as in: “Where’s your compost pile?” Or: “What’s that smell? Is that the compost?” Or: “Whose turn is it to take out the compost anyway?” And so forth. (When my friend Mary Narkiewicz moved from the east coast to Oregon and heard this word, she used it often to refer to the slice of orange that often accompanies a plate of scrambled eggs.)

Wherever Alice did her composting, it was not with Roger. “We didn’t work well together in the garden,” she said. “I worked inside. He worked outside.”

My father would have swooned over this bountiful yard. In his old age, he settled down to home life, planted vegetables and flowers, bought a riding mower, and on a patch of deep black Iowa earth, he made his and Alice’s life more beautiful than it had ever been. Even before he retired, he’d come home from work, open the car door, and kneel to pull up dandelions. He’d weed his way to the front door. You could tell he’d been thinking about green things all day while he worked in his dark office at the back of the store.

In addition to the calla lilies bordering the front window, he was proudest of the giant circle of pink peonies he’d planted smack in the middle of the back yard. From the kitchen window it looked like a pink lake.

One summer when they were in their early 80s I visited Roger and Alice. On a hot afternoon, my father came in the back door with an armful of these peonies, along with bluebells and violets. He handed them all to Alice, then he drew in his breath and stood back. He glanced at me, as if to say, “Watch this.”

Alice pulled a large vase from the back of a cupboard, rummaged around for her kitchen scissors, sat down at the kitchen table, and picked up one of the flowers by its stem, which she held for a moment like a wand. Then she fell into a trance. Under her hands, one fat pink bundle after another floated into exactly the right position in the vase. I’d never seen her create anything other than meals before, and I wish I’d photographed the arrangement she made that day with such lightness of hand and skilled editing.

This photo is as close as I could find online to Alice’s arrangement, but of course the vase she used was much less ornamental.


The things we don’t know about our parents.

Scott said he’d spent a few years as a child with his grandfather, who tended a huge garden and subscribed to organic gardening magazines. Diane’s mother, she said, always grew flowers; her father, vegetables. Her task was to weed. “I hated that as a child,” she said. But now she likes it. “You get to know each plant, each little square inch of your garden as you weed,” she said.

We talked and looked and admired and made our way around to the fruit and vegetable section of the garden.

Raspberries, peas, tomatoes, peppers, grape arbor.

Raspberries, peas, tomatoes, peppers, grape arbor.

Scott disappeared into the leaves to find peas and raspberries for Alice. IMG_0687

She really liked those tiny peas.

Alice and sweet new peas.

And the raspberries:Scott and Alice with raspberries

Diane walked back to Pond Corner to demonstrate how far we’d come.

Diane near house

Then she came back to show Alice how snapdragons work.

Diane demonstrates snapdragons.

Diane demonstrates snapdragons.

Diane demonstrates snapdragons

Alice had never seen these flowers before and wanted to open the dragon’s mouth.

Alice tries opening the dragon's mouth

By the time the dragon finally yawned, Alice admitted she was tuckered out. Diane gave her the bouquet she’d been collecting for her, and we said good-bye.

Later on the phone, the first thing Alice said about her garden trip was this:  “I have fourteen different kinds of plants and flowers in my little vase right here next to me.” She keeps her fragrant gifts close by and worries, as each day passes, that soon they’ll be gone. “They’ll wilt, I know, I know, but I don’t want them to go.”
Flowers from Di and Scott's garden by phone

But at least for a while, they’re here. We’re all right here. Lucky us.

All this beauty brought to you today by Diane and Scott. Thank you!

All this beauty brought to you today by Diane and Scott. Thank you!

View of the path at Di and Scott's

P.S. All six of Diane and Scott’s children now have gardens of their own. If there is no yard where they live, they plant in pots.

What’s growing in your garden this year?

34 Responses to “Inch by Inch”

  1. Eva Gold Says:

    Wow, so beautiful–thanks for the vicarious garden tour!


  2. Lea Harth Says:

    Loved it Andrea! What a lovely day for Alice. I used to do a lot of ‘in the ground’ gardening, different flowering areas, vegetable areas, etc. but now that I live in an apartment it’s a wee bit more challenging. Vegetables don’t like the cool windy clime of the 25th floor balcony so I stick to things that don’t mind it – lavender, California lilac, catnip and oat grass for my boys, star-gazer lilies and a mixed pot of miniature carnation, candy-tuft and a black mondo grass. I miss being able to kneel on the ground so imagine how happy I was to hear that our building’s management is considering granting tenants who want it their own gardening space on the grounds!!
    Is it possible for Alice to have a potted plant in her room at The Place?


    • Your container garden sounds fabulous, Lea. I’ve never heard of candy-tuft or black mondo grass. I have to look them up. As for potted plants, we have tried them in Alice’s apartment and they don’t do well. She doesn’t remember to water them. I come and go and don’t remember to water them. The light is bad, etc. But right outside her window is a community garden and she goes out there for walks all summer long. We have a community garden where I live, too, but I’m not a very talented gardener so I no longer participate. It sounds like it’s a natural for you, though.


  3. A very sweet afternoon for us – and now we have this way to remember it. Thank you, Andrea


  4. Pene Fedro Says:

    Hi Andrea,

    So glad that your Mom had such a wonderful day at your friends garden. Pene Fedro


  5. Katharine Says:

    Alice’s sense of wonder — the perfection of a pea! the beauty of a raspberry in the palm of one’s hand! — all captured by your light and simple voice are perfect for this day when summer is playing hide and seek with us here in the Pacific Northwest.

    “But at least for a while, they’re here. We’re all right here. Lucky us….”

    Lucky us, indeed.

    Thank you again Andrea …


  6. Ah!….Thanks for the tour. I grew up with peonies frequently in a pretty vase on the table. (Have I mentioned that I was born and raised in Iowa?) What a fine day for Alice!


  7. Meg Glaser Says:

    What a great visit to gardens past and present. So many beautiful and wondrous things growing for Alice to take in! I can picture her being amazed by it all. Our growing season is very short and just the other day things froze so feeling a bit jealous of this beautiful garden..


  8. rivermile14 Says:

    First time seeing a snapdragon! How wonderful for Alice. A beautiful garden day you’ve shared with all of us.


  9. John Says:

    How great for Alice to be able to spend a day outside, in such a lovely place … and, what a great little tidbit to learn about your father.

    Some people love gardening. Working in the garden is their meditation, their time of peace… I am not such a one. I hate gardening, and think the plants sense it, as they usually die quickly.

    My goal is to someday be rich enough to have a lovely English garden and a gardener to care for it all.


  10. Sara McD Says:

    I love reading your stories about Alice, feels almost like I am related to stars after this recent post. Changes my perspective to see S&D’s garden through your eyes, I aspire to have a garden like theirs…and to share it too!


    • Yes, you are related to the stars, Sara. It’s obvious in so many ways, but it especially comes through when you say “and to share it too” because that is precisely what makes Diane and Scott who they are, that generosity of spirit. So you just go ahead and shine on. And thank you so much for sending your thoughts.


  11. dianejournal Says:

    love the photos and seeing Alice so happy


  12. Bonnie Belatti Says:

    Loved this piece. I think we as “northern midwesterners” really appreciate the things nature gives us because we have such a short growing season then back to cold and snow.

    You started about the lovely tree. Just on Friday we had a terrible storm in Watertown and we lost lost hundreds of beautiful trees. I’m always saddened when a tree dies or is taken down. Especially by man but also by nature.

    Peonies!!!! My very favorite. They are just blooming now – very late for us this year. The smell – yum – but always get a ton of ants that come in with the Peonies.

    I’m so glad Alice and you were able to enjoy all of these special plants. Wonderful




    • Bonnie, I am trying to imagine Watertown without hundreds of trees and a very bleak picture comes to mind. I’m sure each one of those trees was planted too. I’m so sorry. Enjoy the peonies, though. Ants and all.


  13. Cheryl Says:

    Oh sigh. To be that committed to the garden is a dream…I think. I have more roses than ever before this year as you know from my FB posts, and truly abundance abounds out there. It’s not all neat. It’s not all tidy. But it is all beauty! And maidenhair ferns are my personal favorite, so pretty in the forests. Alice is really having the time of her life in many ways, is she not? With matching stories from the past. Living from bouquet to bouquet one might add. Nice life. Lucky us indeed.


  14. mary narkiewicz Says:

    Beautiful garden, beautiful photographs. Ahh. Flowers and plants! I had forgotten I had said that about compost and oranges, Andrea!


  15. Nancy Says:

    Gosh, I know their garden so well but it never ceases to amaze me and I always long to be there with such good friends. I’m so thrilled that Alice got to visit and be treated to the beauty and charm of the place and its keepers.


  16. alancahn Says:

    What a perfectly wonderful day coming to life again in your retelling. I do believe being in a state of wonder is an amazing place to find oneself. When I am with others who are in that state(or even reading about others in that state as I just did) it seems to make it more accessible for me to wonder. Right now for instance I see the flowers on my desk, which have been there all day, but I am just really noticing and appreciating them now at 9pm… as my Canadian friends might say cool eh?!!! cheers


    • Alan, this is what often happens for me, too. It takes someone else (often Alice) to point to the beautiful things and then I notice them. How quickly we slide into the opposite of the zen-like state Alice was in when she arranged those peonies. I’m glad that, even if just for a few moments, you saw those flowers on your desk.


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