lush life feat
photograph by Stacey Van Berkel

I can date a floral obsession from childhood, when my piano teacher assigned “English Country Garden:”

How many kinds of sweet flowers grow
In an English country garden?
I’ll tell you now of some that I know,
And those I miss you’ll surely pardon.
Daffodils, heartsease, and phlox.
Meadowsweet and lady’s smock.
Gentian, lupine, and tall hollyhocks.
Roses, foxgloves, snowdrops, forget-me-nots …

I loved the sprightly lilt of the melody, and memorized the lyrics. Years later, a poignant scene in my first book featured a Yoshino cherry tree, and peonies. My second novel was set in a columbarium garden. In my fifth novel, trees dominated the people, the plot, the theme — even the cover — and I wrote a scene in which the main characters gleefully rip up ivy — the rampant, go-to ground cover of the oblivious, and my personal nemesis.

I’m a yard person. This doesn’t mean I have a green thumb. It doesn’t mean I know italic names, or what growing zone we live in. I know just enough to be dangerous, and mildly bossy. Plant in the fall. Plant in threes. Deadhead frequently. Prune after flowering. Sasanquas like ashes from your fireplace. I don’t know whether ashes are acid or base; I just know that sasanquas like them. Being a yard person means I’m content in my yard. Being around plants and flowers makes me happy. (But, then, so does killing weeds.) It also means that I’m paranoid that people drive by my yard, see my fanny in the air, and think, “That woman spends the most time working in her yard, with the least results, of anyone I know.”

Opinions abound among yard people (e.g., you say caMAYya and I say caMEELya), but spring will win the Favorite Season contest, beginning with bulbs. You can never have enough daffodils, in every room, every vase, every plot of soil that isn’t grassed. And greater love hath no man than this: planting a handful of bulbs in someone’s yard as a surprise for their future birthday or Christmas present. Take it from me with my toolshed full of bent bulb planters that were guaranteed not to bend, but whose manufacturers failed to reckon with drought-dried October soil.

• • •
 

Spring is the greenest, healthiest, wettest, loveliest moment for yards and gardens. And because everything else is lushly sprouting, so are the unwanteds. Every year I spend one full spring Saturday hunched in a yard bristling with wild onions, wielding a pointed weeder whose handle produces blisters on my palms from repetitive pokes, and chanting to the onions please, please, please come out whole, with their wee bulbs attached, so they’re dead to me. I love a big batch of Roundup as much as the next weed killer, but onions are impervious to anything but physical toil. Which brings me to a confession: The minute my favorite garden store began stocking only organic pest repellents, I defected. When it comes to slugs, my loyalty lies with whatever chemicals kill whatever’s eating holes in my hostas.

Call me a traitor, but I don’t grow azaleas. In Rutherfordton, azaleas were sold on the Winn-Dixie curb in old coffee cans. Their buds were stingy, tight, and a dirty pink. My mother thought — aloud — that they looked like scabs. The description has never left me.

Even a pyracantha vine, with its tiny bloomlets, looks attractive in spring. A friend once fell into a pyracantha bush and has never fully recovered from the thorn trauma, but I couldn’t do without mine. It hosts at least four birds nests every spring. Espaliered beneath the gutter to protect it from rain, a dog lying in the shade at its base, and briars on every stem … We should all have such locales, safe from storms and predators, in which to raise our young.

• • •
 

Here’s how you know when spring ends: The pansies get leggy. It pains me to sacrifice these determined little fellows when they’re still blithely blooming, innocent and unsuspecting that their lives are about to be literally yanked out from under them. This act falls in the same category of putting the poinsettia/African violet outside for a mercy killing in freezing temps because it refuses to die but is no longer worth tending. Still, as the Brits say, needs must.

I’ve yet to forgive my husband for limbing up our magnolia, because I can no longer reach those blossoms big as dinner plates. Nothing compares to the creamy color and leathery feel of magnolia blooms. The velvety petals are so satisfactory for digging a fingernail into, though within minutes, a telltale brown crescent exposes your thoughtless wound.

Our magnolia is a volunteer, and volunteers are welcome in my yard. I love a big batch of cleome in June, airy pink bubbles as tall as I am. When the heart-shaped, centerpiece-ready leaves of snake plant appear in December, I’m delighted. Whether with seeds or rootlings, a volunteer is the perfect pass-along plant. Other volunteers are less welcome, and are commonly referred to as “invasive.” Mint and amsonia come to mind, but “invasive” seems harsh. Instead let’s say “go rogue.” I have friends who go rogue regularly, and I still love them.

After spring comes that fraught time when a tree or plant will, with no good reason, just up and die. Daphnes are prone to up and dying, as is the occasional dogwood. In the blazing heat of midsummer, periwinkle loses its will to live, like me. Hear ye: The next time something up and dies, plant Lenten roses or a crape myrtle in its place. They’re the cockroaches — and I mean that in the best possible context — of the yard-plants world.

Still. For my money and my time, my house and my garden, give me the incomparable peony. Carefree and perennial, with a payoff like no other: big, bountiful, lush, gorgeous, heavy heads of white and pink. Showy but never brassy, feminine but never prissy, even as they swoon and grow blowsy, even when their petals litter the table, they’re beautiful. No, the only problem with peonies is the dilemma of picking them or leaving them. Because in a vase, peonies arrange themselves. In a yard, they’re mood-lifting showstoppers. The only solution is to plant at least four bushes, if you have some sun.

• • •
 

Yards and gardens aren’t static. They are, literally, growing things. They evolve and change. The old adage that a plant is only in the right place for seven years is true. They grow too large, too shaded, too spindly, too something. Mark Twain wrote, “Wrinkles should merely indicate where smiles have been.” So it is for our yards and gardens. The unsightly packed oval of bare dirt beneath a tire swing, the dog trot through the pachysandra, the flattened grass where small feet have trod a shortcut to the spigot, are unimportant, impermanent scars. That’s why we’re out there, season after season, year after year. Next spring, the grass will grow again, and the rain will fall again. Those bare, stomped, flattened, or stripped patches of earth are proof that we exist, evidence of our histories. They’re merely indications of where smiles have been.

This story was published on

Kelly is a contributing editor at Our State. She is the author of By Accident and the novels Now You Know, The Last of Something, Even Now, and How Close We Come, winner of the Carolina Novel Award and an alternate selection of Book-of-the-Month Club. She graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and lives in Greensboro.