hand-me-down plants

the bequeathing usually comes at the end of a muddy shovel. a clump is dug, is offered. it might land, for temporary keeping, in a soggy cardboard box. or get wrapped in wads of newspaper. and then it lumbers home, bumping all the way, in the back of a station wagon. or tucked in the bottom of a suitcase.
don’t think a serious gardener would think twice of, or be bothered by, airport security. certainly not a sentimental gardener.
which, no surprise, would be the box i check when it comes to categorizing those who muck about in mud.
i am, through and through, a sentimental soul. and so is my garden.
i grew up at the earth-stained hands of a hand-me-down gardener. so that’s the surest way i know to garden.
because i’ve watched her, for decades, ferry home orphaned things, discarded things, things that delighted her, or simply reminded her, i know that almost every single long-returning plant, every perennial, in my mother’s garden came from someone else’s.
oh sure, she makes the rounds each spring of the old greenhouse that grows geraniums from seed. and impatiens, too. but except for that single sweep for annuals, the growing things that insist on starting over every year, she does barely any buying for her beds.
instead, she gets her growing things the honest way: she lifts them from other people’s soils. with full blessing, of course.
she has a swath of english ivy you could easily get lost in. plenty of baseballs have. and every single speck of it started out on the hilly slope of the proud cincinnati red-brick where she, long ago, knelt beside her mother, learning how to turn the earth.
that house, once magnificently draped in ivy, is no longer. but the ivy lives on. now 350 miles north of where it once was loosed, its white waxy tendrils shaken of their soils, carried far to where the relocated daughter would sink her roots, would bloom, in a garden not in her mother’s shadow.
my mother’s peonies, which don’t yet grow in my yard but will, so help me, have roots that will make you want to trespass on my grass as soon as they do, and bequeath a peony or three to your very self. (i think they call that stealing).
if you promise not to tell, and try with all your might to resist the peony-poaching temptation, i’ll let you in on a big fat secret: they come from the yard of the old man whose family home was sold a long, long time ago, in memphis, to one mr. e. presley.
yup. the house, now known famously as graceland, was where the man who grew the peonies grew up.
oh, one little thing: he didn’t grow the peonies there. he grew them later, in another century-old house, one on the ravines that jut down into streams that feed into lake michigan, about 20 miles north of chicago, in a place called highland park.
and on and on go the stories of the plants my mother tends in her garden. the ferns from the biochemist who taught me much that i know about God. the lily-of-the-valley from the woodland where i grew up pretending i was a pioneer, making coffee of the wild chicory, berry pies of the honeysuckle fruits that stained my fingers red and my white shorts, too.
all of them, except those presley peonies, darn it, have hopscotched on to my house. they never seem to mind the migration. they settle in, sink roots, stay as long as they are welcome. and they are very welcome.
as would those peonies be, mother dearest. (hmm, i think they call that coveting. yet another garden sin.)
truth is, a garden, being of the earth, is most generous, without you even asking. you take a shovel, you slice the earth, the roots, and it gives forth.
you take, the garden gives. willingly. it asks no pay. other than undying devotion. but even that, it doesn’t demand. only appreciates. mightily.
one plant becomes two. life divides. multiplies. you move it, tuck it, water it. and, poof, the earth just gave you double bounty.
so, too, it gave you story.
to walk through a hand-me-down garden is to walk among those who’ve weeded and hoed and sweated before you. you bend and snip your grandmother’s ivy. you watch the fern unfurl; you think of the man with the booming baritone whose theology rattled you, shook you, and woke you up in your teenage years to its very rooted possibilities.
my mother, who has pedaled down the street, her trowel at the ready to rescue trillium and wild geranium before the bulldozer did them in, shakes her head at those who skip the stories, those whose gardens come bought, not borrowed.
“when you walk around the garden you remember all the people,” she says, as if that’s half the point of planting anything at all. “i think a lot of people now have landscape crews come in.” what’s the point, you hear her thinking.
two points: sometimes a hand-me-down reminds you of another gardener. sometimes it reminds you of another garden.
i know. i handed-down a plant to myself. from my old garden–my first, really–to my new one, the one that’s still becoming mine.
i ached, couldn’t bear to leave that magic garden, that little pocket of solace i had tended for a dozen years. one whose dirt i had sunk my sorrows in during some empty longing years when the one thing i wanted to grow i couldn’t.
i buried grief into those mounds, watered more than once with salty tears.
i pruned and clipped and hoped. i watched my heartache break open into bloom, each and every spring, when all my tender things jostled through the crust of earth, returned, reminded me of the resurrecting promise deep within.
i could not up and leave that little plot. so i took it. or a piece of it, anyway. a blessed fragile beauty, one with sky blue tiny petals, smaller than a fairy’s thimble, that float, it seems, a mist above silver-threaded leaves.
it’s called jack frost brunnera. and i don’t know if in the history of real estate transactions, there had ever been a contract that included what the lawyers call an exclusion—meaning something you won’t sell with the house—for a measly $25 plant.
but i wanted that brunnera. i wanted my every spring to include the magic of the floating mist. so indeed i excluded it. and now it blooms, my totem of my other garden, beneath another woman’s star magnolia, one that came to me with the contract on this old house.
one grows in the dappled shade of the other.
hand-me-down gardens do that. their roots get plenty tangled. they become a patchwork of all your life, a rolling blanket of ever-blooming beauty.
some day, you hope, the tender things you love will bloom in quilt squares in other people’s gardens, in the light and shadow of someone else’s heart.
some day, you hope, someone else will see that floating mist, kneel down, if only for a moment, and drink in the story of the crazy lady who would not leave her plot behind.
she dug up a piece of it. she kept her watch. and then she handed it down and down and down.
the truth of how a garden really grows.

ahh, people, do you have tales to tell of the old souls planted in your garden? do you know the joy, the thrill, of carrying home a tender thing, tucking it rather under your wing, watching it make itself at home in your parcel of the planet? plain fact is, the handing down of plants is, for those less inclined toward sentimental musings, just another name for weeding. as i can hear my mother say, she is making room for something else. why hold onto more than anyone really needs?