GONE BUT NOT FORGOTTEN
There is a beautiful, rather elegiac song by the American composer, Samuel Barber called “Sure On This Shining Night”. The piece has a particularly luscious phrase–“high summer holds the earth”. Right now in my garden, that phrase comes to life. The middle of the daylily bloom cycle has coincided with the beginning of the flowering of the Asiatic lilies. The honey-scented butterfly bushes sport new flower panicles every day and many of the roses are enjoying a second flush. Nasturtiums and cosmos and annual poppies and marigolds have begun popping their blossoms. Things have not gone near-dormant as they do in August. The fullness and abundance and the rich combination of scents makes this time of year almost better than spring.
My garden is full of roses in pale colors—yellows, shades of peach, pinks, white and cream. I have only one really red rose, and that is ‘Othello’, an Austin English rose that I got as part of a package deal several years ago. Even in bud it stands out among its pastel-colored bedmates, and the blossoms turn almost black as they age. Like the other roses it is blooming for the second time this growing season, and yesterday I was struck by its beauty. ‘Othello’ brought back memories of my father, a great lover of red roses, who died five years ago on Father’s Day. My father and I had different gardening orientations. He was from a generation of gardeners who truly believed in the slogan “better living through chemistry.” He treated the lawn, trees, shrubs and plants with a wide variety of highly refined fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides and fungicides. The lawn stayed green, the roses were perfection itself and blackspot never dared besmirch a single leaf. Everyone he knew did the same thing, even if all they grew were a few petunias in a pot.
I know that if my father came back today he would tell me that my garden is a mess. I find weeding peaceful and therapeutic, but I don’t get to it as often as I would like. Edging is not a high priority. Crabgrass and other noxious garden weeds rear their ugly heads from time to time, usually in places where everyone will notice them. My rose bushes, while robust, are not immune to blackspot. At this time of year it is impossible to pick off all the Japanese beetles, although I try to be vigilant. If you look hard enough in my garden you can find every pest from earwigs to groundhogs. I use my own compost to fertilize the plants, blast the insect predators with water from the garden hose and mulch everything to insulate roots and conserve moisture. I used to annihilate aphids by spraying the roses with insecticidal soap after every rainstorm. Now I rarely have the time to do that.
In short, gardening for me has more to do with Darwin than with Ortho. This was true even when my father was alive, though to avoid arguments we never discussed such things. Instead we had great conversations about rose varieties, the beauty of great big blowsy peonies and the vagaries of the weather. Gardening was a bond between us, and the source of many long Sunday night telephone conversations. For him gardening transcended the burdens of aging, loneliness and ill health. For me it transcended the burdens of childrearing, overscheduling and financial worries. When he died I felt as if the conversation had been cut off in mid sentence.
So I became a garden writer as a way of continuing that conversation. Some of the things that I write about, like some of my garden practices, would undoubtedly make my father roll his eyes. With the exception of sweet alyssum he did not care for plants with insignificant flowers, so my journalistic exertions on behalf of hardy geraniums and California poppies would leave him cold. He did not like “weedy” plants, so my hymn to the glories of swamp milkweed would exasperate him.
There are other things that he would enjoy. Since he lived with varying degrees of nasal congestion about eighty percent of the time, he liked flowers with strong scents. He and I agreed on the virtues of lily-of-the-valley and lilacs of any variety. He loved forsythia despite its weedy tendencies and was perpetually annoyed by the invasive qualities of mint. He like to have flowers around in the wintertime (which lasted about ten months in Western New York), and loved big red Amaryllis and mass quantities of African violets.
Now, for some reason, I feel a new yearning for the rich colors that my father preferred. After seeing my ‘Othello’ rose with new eyes I went down to the local public rose garden and took in ‘Mr. Lincoln’ and ‘Chrysler Imperial’, two vivid red roses that started in my father’s rose beds. Thumbing through the fall planting catalogs, my eye is drawn to the dark red peonies and the tall scarlet tulips.
After five years the continuing conversation with my father goes on in my head and in my writing. Now though, the images that accompany that conversation are brighter, as if someone had adjusted the fine tuning. As high summer holds the earth, my father’s garden remains in full bloom.