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.
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:
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 liked the tatting fern all right, but she preferred the delicate maidenhair ferns. There’s quite a variety of them.
And she fell hard for the dainty oxalis, pink and white.
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.
Off we went, into the sun and the company of more flowers. Here are some examples of what she saw:
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.
At one point she turned to Diane and asked, “Did you two plant all this?”
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.
She really liked those tiny peas.
Diane walked back to Pond Corner to demonstrate how far we’d come.
Then she came back to show Alice how snapdragons work.
Alice had never seen these flowers before and wanted to open 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.”
But at least for a while, they’re here. We’re all right here. Lucky us.
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?