My good friend Judy pulled into our driveway, jumped out of her station wagon with a shovel and a smile, and started unloading nine healthy hostas.
Judy arrived to continue her quest to make our large, urban and mainly mulched backyard green and pretty. She expected nothing in return, which is the kind of wonderful and courageous friend Judy is.
Her hostas — split from her own exquisite, expansive gardens — came in several varieties. Her plan was to add them to an area under a large maple tree, a spot where she had planted three baby hostas the summer before.
But Judy couldn’t find the hostas she’d planted the summer before.
I stood behind her, practicing various expressions of surprise in case she looked my way, which she did.
“What happened to the three plants from last year?” she asked gently. “I’m sure they were right here.”
I think she whispered something under her breath about how hard it is to kill this type of plant.
“You did water them, right?”
Before I answer that question, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, may I remind you that I grew up in New Mexico? Our plants were cactus, and they had enticing names like Pancake Prickly Pear and the Horse Crippler.
They didn’t need water. They needed handlers.
For 28 years, I’ve watched winter melt away and every single Minnesota man, woman and child head out in shorts and sandaled socks to the garden store. I’ve watched you return with marigolds and happy black-eyed Susans, arborvitaes and spireas, effortlessly transforming brown death into brilliant window boxes in fuchsia and lemon yellow, creating towering flower pots, replanting terraced lawns with graceful sedge and fiery orange daylilies.
Every year I watch in awe, and more than a little shame. I have no idea how to do any of this.
I don’t know the difference between topsoil and potting soil, which is why I still have a lot of topsoil in my garage, should you need it.
I have no idea why some flowers are annuals and others are perennials. I’d never heard the word “deadheading,” but thought it might have something to do with music.
Every summer, I’ve consoled myself by figuring that somebody has to be the one who makes one’s neighbors feel superior. But after my little fiasco with my friend Judy, I decided that enough was enough.
Not one more hosta was going to die on my watch. I had to embrace humility and my own incredible lack of knowledge about how to dig a hole.
And this, dear readers, is how a community garden grows in the sweetest sense.
Google ‘brown thumb’
First stop, of course, was Google, where no one could hear me scream.
I nearly jumped when the first words that popped up were “Total Vegetation Killer.” How did Google know?
Oh, thank goodness. It was only an ad for a commercial weedkiller.
Clearly, it was time to get out of my basement.
I headed from one garden store to another, alone, with a dizzying array of Post-it notes onto which I’d scribbled “pyramidal arborvitae,” “tiger lilies,” “dwarf boxwood” and mysterious measurements … 15.5 by 18.5 … Dang. What was that measuring again?
I confessed to anyone who’d listen that I was new to gardening, that I didn’t know … much.
To a person, garden people were patient, cheery, free of judgment. They asked me about sun exposure on different sides of the house and made suggestions for appropriate options. One lovely saleswoman pulled together eight flowers in different heights and colors, staging them in exactly the way I would place them into my flowerpot.
I learned such tricks as filling up deep pots with milk bottles and foil first, so I didn’t have to use so much potting soil.
Another garden goddess showed me how to gently divide flowers from hanging pots to get more bang for my buck when transferring them to window boxes — those boxes, by the way, handmade painstakingly and beautifully by our friend Chris.
Others explained how to deadhead and trim back branches to allow new growth to flourish.
Is this plant dead?
My initial efforts were modestly impressive. I filled pots and flower boxes and watered and watered and watered.
When flower-box flowers started dying anyway (too much watering, maybe?) my partner, Patrick, quietly replanted them in lovely, healthy rows.
When I killed a hydrangea, I sheepishly returned it to the garden store, seeking advice.
An all-knowing, no-nonsense staff person took one look and announced that it wasn’t dead at all. I simply needed to cut off dead branches to make room for the tiny green buds to continue to sprout. After a very long, and ultimately successful, pause on my part, she added, “If you wait a minute, I’ll find my shears and do it for you.”
Ross from the neighborhood hardware store brought over plant food for my small bushes, and sticks to tie up my lilies to give them the best chance to soar.
Friends Dana and Larry gave me more hostas, no questions asked. Andrea texted photos from her own gorgeous pots to inspire mine.
Daughter Sydney, who’s a produce buyer in Brooklyn, walked me through planting cucumbers via text messages and constant cheerleading.
And my gardens grew. And grew.
As summer ends, I don’t strive to be a master gardener. Even a middling gardener can gaze out her kitchen window hourly, marveling at her hearty hostas. She can step out front to admire window boxes filled with happy colors, and vines that have grown inches already.
She can rejoice at a hydrangea that returned from the dead to sprout pretty white flowers.
And if she’s wise, she will invite everyone over who made that happen. Cucumbers all around.