(This blog post is prompted by Gayla Trail's "Grow Write Guild",
a creative writing club for people who love to garden.
Check it out here if you'd like to know more.)
I can't recall what my very first plant was. My mother was a gardener, and in our small apartment on the US army base in Schweinfurt, Germany, she kept boxes of flowers on the balcony. I know that somewhere there is a photo of me on that balcony helping her plant. I can't be more than four or five. I'm wearing red corduroy overalls, my blond hair is in long pigtails, and a smile lights up my face as my little kid fingers poke into the soil.
Fast forward, and we're in the backyard of our little house in the suburbs of East Greenbush, NY. My mother has planted flowers with seed pods that explode when you squeeze them with your fingers. I'm nine, and my brother is three. The burst of yellow seeds from the green pod elicits giggles of surprise, much like when you wind a jack-in-the-box. You know it's coming, but you still jump when the box pops open, even if it's just your heart giving a little skip.
When I am eleven or twelve, my mother has given me a little partly shady spot to begin my own garden. We have moved to Coxsackie, NY, and our house is a light blue Victorian sitting atop ten acres of field and woodland. The garden sits on the north side of the house, and is already full of lush, green ferns. I add a bleeding heart, and a group of pansies. I loved pansies as a kid - their painted faces made me think of colorful cats. I also loved the Disney version of Alice in Wonderland. The pansies Alice meets among the flowers were my favorite with their feral faces and soft voices. (I still have dreams where I am dwarfed by plants, stalks of clover reaching the height of oaks.)
I weeded the pansy plot in the beginning, but as the summer stretched, I lost interest in the weeding and focused instead on our inhabitants on the farm. Our rabbits kindled and we raised the kits. The sheep and goats were moved from pasture to pasture. The chickens had to be fed. The dog needed attention. The cats needed love. I played Barbies with my cousins who had come to live with us. I caught garter snakes sunning themselves by the rusted water pump. I climbed the tallest pine tree to look over the field that had once been home to an orchard. I picked cherries from the cherry tree and grapes from the vines that had gone wild.
I entered one of my pretty little pansies into a 4-H fair, and got a red ribbon instead of a blue. The summer sun had hit that shady spot and warmed them up, and the weeds threatened to take over the pansy group. The pansy I entered was pale in the stem and limp in the leaves, but I thought the cornflower blue of the bloom was the most beautiful among them. I looked at the ribbon and decided the judges didn't see the world the way I did.
I have grown pansies only once since then. I prefer perennial blooms and vegetable patches. I planted the pansies last year to perk up the corner plot which faces the street. It was in an awkward stage where the green leaves of perennials were just beginning to unfurl from dead sticks and weathered mulch. My pansies were creamy yellow blooms among kelly green leaves. As the summer swelled, the blooms faded in the searing heat. The phlox, speedwell, and ornamental grasses stole the show. Still, I looked at the pansies and thought of flowers a hundred feet tall, blue ribbons waving in the wind.