Sunday, February 17, 2013

Mom's Yard

Mom and Jake in 2004

I wanted to tell you a little bit about my mom’s yard because it’s so beautiful and because it is the setting for so many of our family events. It’s the setting for so many of our memories. Mom started planting the yard in 1966, the year I was born.

It’s the lushest place, protected from cold and wind by layer upon layer of foliage. It’s a great venue for Easter egg hunts simply because there are so many hiding places—-thick clumps of blue-eyed grass, deep hedges of azaleas, carpets of ferns, curtains of Spanish moss, warty old oaks full of hollows. . . . The kind of lushness Mom’s yard possesses can only be achieved over time, by years and years of patient planting.

But it doesn't just come from planting. It's also a result of Mom's tolerance and fondness for the wild, for nature in its truest, messiest, most wonderful form. Mom doesn't try to control everything in her yard. Sometimes she simply lets things be. Last fall I remember I was always ducking just to get in the front door because a big banana spider had built her web across the porch. Mom wouldn't have dreamed of disturbing her.

"Well, I see you've got a new Halloween decoration," I said the first time I had to duck.

"Oh, isn't she marvelous?" Mom smiled. "She's almost as big as a mammal!"

So you see, Mom has a very welcoming attitude when it comes to her yard. She accommodates spiders and appreciates the decorative quality of a fairy ring. She accepts seedling camellias and seedling oranges and all sorts of other "volunteers." Whenever I come over, she's always excited to show me something new that's popped up, a new "baby" she's nurturing along. I love peeking into a crowded bed and seeing the tiny pine or water oak tree that she's encouraging.

During my lunch hour, I make it a habit to go by Mom's house because it always cheers me up. Mom's so hopeful and full of energy, and she's always up to something; she's always cooking up a new gardening project. The other day, for example, I noticed some chayote squashes rooting in a neat little box of sand in her garage. There's always something rooting--like the pot full of shiny camellia branches Mom recently rescued from her neighbor's trash pile. They’re sitting peacefully in front of the garage right now, undergoing their gradual and invisible transformation. See, one day about a month ago I was dreaming in my dreamy way about starting a business propagating and selling camellias, so that very afternoon Mom rescued the branches and started rooting them. She got the business going for me.

Our whole family is crazy about camellias. In fact, the yard’s most prominent feature is probably the camellia bed out back. It’s huge and filled with dozens of varieties: Debutante, La Peppermint, Pink Empress, Pink Perfection, Magnoliaeflora, Lalla Rookh, Frank Hauser, Julia France, Dr. Tinsley, Rubra, Silver Waves, Alba Plena, Nuccio’s Pearl, Nuccio's Gem, Glen 40, Tulip Time, Bonanza, Spring Promise, Coral Delight. . . . Some of the camellias are my age, and they’re as tall as trees, and some are much younger, planted just this year. This fall and winter I’ve spent many lunch hours admiring them all, both young and old, and making sure I know their names.

Another part of the yard I really like is at the very back, at the edge of the woods. In early spring this particular area is positively purple, a sea of wild violets. There are hundreds, maybe thousands! It’s always been this way. When Kris and I were kids, we were crazy about spring, and when it finally arrived we’d want to go “rejoicing,” as we called it. Rejoicing for spring always involved running around and leaping . . . and it involved picking bouquets of violets in that special section of the yard.

Mom's cat Poncho with a couple of violets

When I was young, the yard was my greatest source of entertainment. It was never boring. To me, it was always a garden of delights. There was honeysuckle to sip from, and star jasmine to smell. The yard was a rich repository of petals and berries and mushrooms and acorns—all the necessary props for pretend games. Kris and I would parade around under elephant ear umbrellas, sporting crowns and necklaces of white clover. We’d fan ourselves with canna lily leaves and serve mushroom cakes (with luscious mud icing) to our dolls.

Back then, the yard was home to a trampoline and a slide and numerous forts and baby pools. Now those have been replaced with birdbaths, benches, and statues. There’s a picnic table where we have picnics . . . and carve Halloween pumpkins and dye Easter eggs. And there are swings in the trees for Sophie and Jake (my niece and nephew, Mom's grandchildren). There's a shallow pond where, one night, Mom saw a mother raccoon and her two babies taking a moonlight swim.

In the days of my childhood, Mom grew plum trees, and she kept two big vegetable gardens, one in the front yard and one in the back. Well, the plums and most of the vegetables are gone now (shaded out by trees grown grand with age), but other edibles have been planted to make up for the loss. Mom grows loquats, tangerines, grapefruit, lemons, kumquats, and clementines. In summer she tends pots of clown peppers and tomatoes in the yard’s one last small sunny spot.

If you come over in spring, Mom will always give you a bag of loquats to take home (the taste is so nostalgic; it’s the taste of spring). And all year round, she’s eager to share plants. She’s given me wild petunias, partridgeberry, Christmas ferns, chain ferns, lady ferns, wood ferns, spiderworts, spleenworts, and trilliums, just to name a few. Every April she gives me fresh clown pepper plants that she’s grown from seed. Mom is the most generous person in the world. She’s always giving people things. Bun and Kris and I like to say she makes the Giving Tree look miserly by comparison.

You know that great line at the end of Babette’s Feast, when Babette says that an artist "is never poor”? Well, I think it’s equally true that a gardener is never poor. (And of course a gardener is a kind of artist.) Mom could never be poor because she has an unstoppable drive to create beauty and share it with other people. Her life could never be bleak or grim or barren. It will always be rich. Because she’s always creating and producing and giving. She has the power to make something out of nothing, to pull beauty out of thin air. When I was a kid, a bouquet of coleus or impatiens cuttings rooting in a pickle jar was a constant feature of the kitchen windowsill. Mom could take one plant (maybe found on a trash pile) and turn it into 20. The whole process, so magical seeming, made me think of the miracle of the multiplying loaves and fishes. Even if we didn’t have any money, our yard would be beautiful and bountiful because Mom would make it so.

Here's the yard in the very beginning. See how bare it is? Mom had to start at square one.

Jacob and Bunny in the same spot many years later

When the yard was sunnier, the canna lily bed was a prominent feature.

Azaleas on Easter morning, 1975

Mom, Jacob, Bunny, and Kris under the laurel oak in the front yard, 1976

Bunny on the trampoline in 1989

Pink Perfection in the present day


  1. Oh Leslie ~ Your Mom is a lovely woman, inside and out. What a joy to have had a mother like that. Her joy of life and gardening and sharing with others is a gift.

    I would love to grow a camellia down here, but I think it is too warm and humid. I think they are beautiful blooms.

    Are you seriously considering having a business with these wonderful plants? May your wish come true and may you do fantastic with it.


  2. Your writing sucks me in and makes me wish for more and more pictures. Heck, now I want to go to your Mom's for lunch. She sounds like an absolute gem! And it sounds like your childhood was just perfect.

    Your posts are always beautiful, Leslie.

    Have a great week.


  3. Leslie,
    I'm sorry to just now visit your post. I've been out for surgery. ILOVE Pink Perfection. And my,my they memories you stirred up for me about Easter egg hunts at my grandmothers house... times seem so different now. The was such a better sense of family then...

  4. What a lovely tribute to your mom's garden. I can say that I have very similar and wonderful memories of my mother's garden (she's still there today) and always will. Having offspring from her plants in my garden is very special to me and will be even more so when she's no longer with us. I must tell you that I'm in LOVE with Poncho. What a beauty He/she is. Great photo of him there with the violets.

  5. Thanks, Lorraine. Your comments are always so sweet and thoughtful. They really make my day.

    My mom is such a great mom and such a great gardening friend. We often go to the nurseries together on my lunch hour. She's so much fun to go with because she's so excited and enthusiastic about everything. She never gets fed up with any plants, even those that are the hardest to grow. She's always willing to try again; she's always hopeful.

  6. Hi Eli. Thank you! I feel the same way about your blog. Your writing is so funny and touching and effortless-seeming that I always want to read more. You need to write a book.

  7. Hi Randy, thank you! I hope you are feeling better!

  8. Hi Susan, thank you! That's great that you have offspring of your mother's plants in your garden. It's funny, as I get older I realize how much gardening is, for me, really about carrying on a tradition. It's so important to me to grow the plants of my childhood, to surround myself with those living memories.