I knew our next door neighbor was an expert gardener, because everyone told me so. “Oh, you live on such and such, do you know the ____? She’s an expert gardener.” I met Mr. M in December when he and his daughter were stringing outdoor lights, but I didn’t meet Shirley until a couple months ago.
Naturally, she was tending to her garden. We said a few nice words and I didn’t see her again until a few weeks ago, when she called to me from across the fence. She was in the process of dividing some of her plants and would I like any. Umm…. yes, please.
She invited me to walk through her yard to see what she would be digging up and what I might want, so the girls and I popped over for a tour. She told me the names of the plants, what kind of flowers they had (if any), what environment they liked. I learned that she is mainly self-taught, having gathered a lot of her gardening knowledge online (I still think to a large degree that gardening is a talent, rather than a skill and she clearly has that special something).
After our walk-through, she instructed me to get potting soil and any soil mixture that said “compost”on it and a couple days later, she called me over again. She had already pulled up several hostas, which are perfect for a shady yard like ours, and sedum, which is great for ground cover. I loved the Solomon’s Seal (in the hosta family) for its height and simple lines, so she dug some of it up and I added it to the pile.
Shirley’s garden gets a lot more sun than we do (thanks to our two huge maples, birch and other large trees), but I decided to try some sun-loving plants anyway. She dug up a bunch of daisies….
dianthus, a low-growing shrub with pinky-purplish flowers…
After an hour or so (she did all the hard work!), I had a wheelbarrow full of perennials. She also threw in a pair of gardening gloves when I mentioned that I had none.
She walked over with me to our backyard, so she could show me the proper way to transplant, and I also wanted her opinion on where to put everything. She made a comment that she’d never been in our backyard, which I was surprised to hear (she and her husband have lived in their home for 12 years and the people we bought the house from lived here for over twenty).
We started with the garbage bag full of sedum. I watched as she planted the first clump. Use a shovel (she let me borrow hers. It was waaay easier to work with than our large man-sized one and a few days later I bought my own) to break up any roots and dig a hole for the new plant.
After placing the plant in the hole, add a handful of potting soil and a handful of compost mix and cover up the roots with dirt, being careful not to pack the dirt too much (Shirley reminded me that plants need three things: water, sun and air). I asked if I needed to replant all the plants that day. Yes, I did and the quicker the better.
Three hours later, I was done. Towards the end, I was being less and less careful, throwing leaves and flowers into the dirt with the roots. I just wanted to get them in the ground.
I’ve always loved the idea of gardening, but I haven’t done much of it. I come from a family of ridiculously green thumbs (my grandpa always had the heartiest fruits and vegetables, my grandma the most beautiful roses and orchids and my mom is a natural as well), so I hope some of those genes will start showing up in me.
Initially I was hesitant and overwhelmed about where to begin. But where do I put everything? Shirley told me to think about what I wanted to see when I looked out onto the yard from the patio. What did I want it to look like? And go from there. Can the daisies go over here? Try it. If something dies, you pull it up and try something else. No big deal.
I’m glad she gave me the responsibility of decision-making because ultimately my sense of ownership and pride is that much stronger. About a week after the big planting day, our lawn guys came and trampled over a bunch of my new plants and blew dirt and debris onto many others. I cried. Hard.
When we first moved to Grosse Pointe and were living in our rental apartment, my girlfriend Ingrid told me to buy a plant to take care of. She said it would help ground me. Maybe I was so emotional because after a year of feeling so unsettled, I was finally starting to feel rooted to this place.
The beauty of gardening is that if something doesn’t go as planned, you can always start over. That’s also what I love so much about living with seasons – everything is constantly changing, renewing itself, reminding us that life is cyclical. You watch things thrive and die and come back to life seemingly right before your eyes and there’s something so profound about that.
Lately, I’ve been spending at least an hour a day (sometimes hours) weeding, trimming, watering, planting and envisioning our garden in the years to come. And it all started with a chat across the fence. How does your garden grow?