Dad’s Garden

I’m pretty sure gardening is genetic. Whether a recessive gene or one of those that lie dormant until needed, I don’t know and couldn’t say. But I know beyond a doubt that my love for gardening was passed down to me from my father’s side of the family.

Dad’s mother kept a vegetable garden in the backyard of her little house on Park Avenue in downtown Lexington. She may have grown a few zinnias for cutting and maintained a beautiful collection of African Violets in her dining room. But Granny was first and foremost a vegetable gardener. Space was too precious in her little garden to waste on pretty things.

Granny planted new crops in late winter, early summer, and late summer. She’d plant cover crops in the fall and plowed them under when the weather suited her. She might have used a little Sevin dust now and then. Otherwise, her garden was organic.

Among Granny’s many children, the gardening trait turned up in Dad and my Uncle Charles. Both men grew vegetables, too, but they focused on flowering plants. This isn’t to say their siblings didn’t also enjoy gardening. But for them, it never seemed to be the priority it always was for Dad and Charles.

My father never read the directions or instructions for anything in his entire life. Ever. Not one time. He was a thinker, not a reader–a man who prided himself on his ability to figure things out for himself.

And so it was with his garden.

Dad heeded the advice of gardening experts the way a lot of folks read the Bible. He went with the parts he liked and ignored the rest. Once a planting area has been dug, experts advise against turning the ground over again. Instead, a wise gardener adds an inch or two of compost to the top of the soil every year and maybe tops that with a heavy mulch.

Whether he learned it from Granny or reached a decision on his own I can’t say. But every winter, Dad went out and turned over every square inch of every border, bed, and island in the yard–with a shovel.

He tossed all his yard waste into a heap. I hesitate to call it compost. Sometimes he turned it, sometimes he didn’t. Other than that, peat moss was the only soil additive he ever used, and he went through bales of it every winter.

Okay. Here’s a fact about weeding. Pull them before they set seed and, over time, weeding becomes less and less of a chore. Unless, of course, you turn the ground over. Or add them in compost that never got hot enough to kill the seed. Oops.

For nearly fifty years, Dad exposed new generations of weed seeds to perfect growing conditions. He’d crawl around the garden on his hands and knees with a big bucket pulling weeds every weekend for months. Sometimes he mulched. By July, he was through pulling any but the most offensive individuals.

Turning the ground over every year had other consequences. Because he never quite remembered where they were, perennials that disappear over the winter were doomed. Bulbs took a hit, too. He’d complain about them being hard to grow and try a different plant. He learned to recognize volunteer seedlings like poppies, larkspur, money plant, and black-eyed Susans and allowed them to grow wherever they came up, no matter how unlikely or inconvenient.

Maybe he did it on purpose. Every spring he invested a small fortune in new purchases from local nurseries and garden centers. Were it not for all the plants that didn’t make it through the winter, he’d never have found room for all the new additions.

To give his swimming pool year-long appeal, he built the ugliest greenhouse ever constructed on the deck, making it impossible for anyone with a BMI greater than 30 to walk by without serious risk of falling in the pool. He grew annual flowers and vegetables from seed in it, but mostly it was a sunny, wind-free place for him to spend his time when it was just too cold to be outside.

The last time I visited his garden, the weeds had taken over. The last year or two he was alive, he wasn’t well enough to turn the ground over in the winter. He didn’t grow anything in his greenhouse, and he didn’t go on his seasonal buying spree to fill in holes.

I dug up a bunch of the double-orange day lilies that had been in the garden for as long as I can remember. Turns out, I dug up on the wrong ones. They’re singles, not doubles. Still, I tend them with care and look forward to their blooms every summer.

[Updated from a post appearing in August 2012, shortly after my father passed away.]


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