Both my mother and my mother-in-law had sprouted into this world with verdant thumbs, and vegetables and flowers sprang from their efforts. But as kids, Husband and I weren’t fans of gardening. He recalled working in gardens—as big as city lots—spreading bales of straw for mulch and truckloads of manure, surrendering much of his summer days “ministering to the vegetables,” as he would say. I remembered trailing my mom, enduring the mosquito-biting hours while weeding long rows of vegetables on my grandparents’ farm. The only high point for me was plucking carrots from the earth, wiping their dirt onto my jeans, and noshing them while they were still gritty.
Husband and I had never owned a garden together until we settled into our home in north Minneapolis. Since childhood, my tune had changed about gardening, and I was delighted the previous homeowners had left behind some presents: peonies, strawberry plants, lily of the valley. I even counted the sprawling lilac as ours because it spilled its sumptuous scent—for a week and a half every spring—over the fence into our yard from the Isenbergs’ place.
Since we were entwined in home improvement projects that first year in the house, we didn’t venture into the garden much. By the next summer, though, we itched to dig in the dirt and grow stunning things just like our mothers had. But Husband and I were uninformed about the ins and outs of gardening, and our naiveté probably trumpeted the truth across the yard to our neighbors.
“Do you mind if we grow clematis along the chain link fences?” I asked Glenda on the north and Mrs. Isenberg on the south. “I just wanted to be sure you’re okay with it, because it’ll be thick and cover the fences completely.”
While both of them gave their consent, our lack of horticultural skills prevented us from knowing some basic facts: establishing clematis takes time, and it doesn’t grow well in the shade.
Undaunted and thrifty, we bought flowers—late in the season one year—at discounted prices from Malmborg’s. I created a puzzle piece-shaped garden, and we took a stab at it, plunging autumn sedum, columbine, bleeding heart, creeping jenny, and some new hostas into the soil. On the other side of the yard, I plugged in some annuals—pansies, celosia, impatiens, coleus, and marigolds—for instant gratification.
The following year, we eagerly awaited the return of spring. When the weather warmed, I inspected the flower beds. The sedum was okay and the bleeding heart had made a valiant return, but the dianthus with its normally fringy blooms, looked more raggedy than it should have. I looked over at the next plant and gasped.
“Any reason why our columbine is black?” I called to Husband across the yard where he turned over soil with a shovel.
He stopped his work and swiped an arm across his forehead. “Maybe the dirt is too acidic? Too much watering? Or some pest got at it?”
So it was a mystery to him too. I sighed. Then I tossed my gaze to Dallas’ yard. He had moved in just the year before when the Isenbergs had moved out. They hadn’t left him much, so whatever he had in the garden was all his. He bustled about the yard with his wheelbarrow and the kind of confidence that could turn the head of a sunflower. His monarda shot its fireworks in the corner of the yard, his daylilies showed off in a dozen colors, his tulips and irises—in straight lines—took turns blooming in the front yard, and his wild echinacea, black-eyed susan, and aster speckled the landscape.
As I gawked at his property, I saw the grass was truly greener on the other side. In fact, over there at Dallas’ place, it was the Garden of Eden. How could he have grown a mature perennial garden in such a short time? Didn’t it take years to coax and nurture one? My envy was much greener than my thumb and just as honorable as Eve’s.
“How does your garden look so good?” I said, baffled.
“My mom has a green thumb.” Dallas shrugged. “I guess I got it from her.”
“So does my mom. But I didn’t inherit the Midas touch.”
Good-natured and humble, Dallas laughed that laugh that reverberated across the yards.
In April each year, Dallas’ yellow and purple crocuses kicked off the growing season, and in October, his chrysanthemums drew it to a close. He had timed it all just so; at any moment, the color spectrum splashed his gardens. His flowers were healthy, showy, and well-established, and then I’d watch in horror as he’d dig it all up and change the configuration the next year, relocating his plants to other parts of the yard or scrapping certain varieties of flowers altogether if he tired of them. Meanwhile, on our side of the fence, we found a few good spots that worked for certain plants, and we kept it that way, not daring to tempt the cosmos—or the other kind of cosmos with its pretty pink flowers.
“Hey, knock that off over there,” Husband would holler over when Dallas was out working in his garden. “You’re making us look bad.”
Dallas would laugh again and then stop for a minute to chat, maybe even handing us a perennial or two over the fence.
We shared the same stretch of land in the city. So, green thumb aside, how was Dallas’ patch of earth so fertile while ours struggled? As I gazed at his burning bush—with its vibrant red foliage in the fall—I thought of the biblical leader and wondered if Dallas truly lived on holy ground. But before I kicked off my flip-flops in reverence, he shared with me his secret.
“I use what our family calls ‘brown gold’,” he said, pausing from splitting some plants. “It’s manure from the farm.”
His ‘brown gold’ explained some of his success, but his talents were undeniable and his generosity unparalleled.
“Bring your girls over with scissors and cut all the tulips you can,” he said one spring. “I’m heading out of town, and they’ll be done blooming when I get back. You might as well enjoy them.”
And year after year, he’d urge us to bring our baskets to his harvest.
“Please come and take all the tomatoes, peppers, and ground cherries you want,” he’d say. “I’ve already canned more than I can eat.”
Over the years, Husband and I made peace with our gardening skills and saw Dallas’ yard for what it was: a gorgeous backdrop to our plot of land. And with no work for us, we could savor the man’s artistry, eat his vegetables, and enjoy front row seats to Eden’s opulence. Living next door to a gardening master was just as good as being one.
*Miss an installment of the blog? Or want to catch the story from the beginning? Visit http://www.tamarajorell.com/blog-entries-by-date
*Names in this blog have been changed to protect my family, neighbors, and friends in the neighborhood, and in a nod of appreciation to the beloved Swedish author Maj Lindman, I’ve renamed my three blondies Flicka, Ricka, and Dicka.