I INHERITED A MASTER gardener’s work when I bought my single-woman house nine years ago. I moved in over one stress-filled weekend: surgery on Friday morning, a final divorce notice on Saturday. Four weeks later, with my hand firmly over my scar, I left the house for the first time and walked the gardens. A bit of healing, I thought.
Bending, planting, and playing in the mud were out of the question. All I could do was stand and watch the weeds take hold, powerless to stop them.
“I can’t garden anymore, either,” someone said. I turned to look over my shoulder. A gray-haired man stood behind me, leaning on the outside of my fence. “I had a quadruple bypass last winter,” he said. “Didn’t take. My heart’s failing. I can’t even mow the law now.”
From my upstairs bedroom window, I had watched a frail, tiny woman with white hair and white tennis shoes pushing a mower across the lawn. I nodded, as though I understood how that made a husband feel.
My garden used to be his, he explained. He had sold part of his land to the people who built my house two years earlier. I was standing among irises, tulips, plum trees, raspberry bushes, maple, and spruce trees that he had planned and planted.
Tired from my tiny excursion across the lawn, I leaned on my side of the fence. He smiled, and I could see how handsome he had one been, still was.
The plum trees were too old, they should be taken out, he said. Those raspberries over there were ever-bearing. These here yielded buckets, if I just cut them back a bit. The big apple tree needed pruning, the little one could wait. Could my husband handle that? Didn’t have one, I said. He winked and said a boyfriend would do just as well. Didn’t have one of those, either. Hire somebody to prune the dang tree, then! I promised him that I would. Look there for the poppies, he pointed across the lawn. Support the peonies early on, before the heads get heavy. Those lilies will take over if you let them. Cover the roses before the snow.
I listened, hoping I’d remember everything. Maybe I could ask him later in the season? He said he wouldn’t be here, said he was tired. He turned to go back into his house, and I waved.
“You watch for those tulips, now,” he said. “They’re gone, but they’ll be back in the spring, all around the edge of that garden there.”
I never saw him in the yard again. Soon the house was sold and his wife moved away.
For two years, I worked that tulip-edged garden. It was an odd shape, a kind of overgrown crescent in the center of the yard. I went slowly, uncertain of what to weed, what to cut back. I pulled tufts of encroaching grass away from the edges of the soil I tilled. The bed of flowers began to resemble a kidney.
In the spring, with the confidence born of fighting quack grass for 24 months, I attacked with fresh energy, digging down and finding the original borders, reclaiming the area where the lawn had infringed. It was brutal work: The grass had trespassed long ago and now seemed to have squatter’s rights. More than once, I pulled so hard on entrenched weeds that I fell over backward into the soft grass and hard ground. After hours of sweaty work, the circle of weeding around the garden was complete. I connected one weeded side with the other, like two railroads coming together at a golden spike. Sore, flushed, and too tired to stand back and enjoy the results, I retreated into the house and went upstairs to shower. Heading for the closet and clean clothes, I stopped at my bedroom window to look down at my handiwork.
The peonies were thriving, split and staked. The lilies were groomed and compact. Winter had claimed one of the roses, but the coral-colored ones, the ones exactly the shade of the front door of my house, were leafing out just fine. The apple tree, pruned last fall by a guy named Jack who arrived in a truck with a stepladder hung on the side, was blossoming.
And from this height, I saw what I couldn’t see before, working on my hands and knees. The garden was a heart. With yellow tulips, all around.
This appeared in Midwest Home & Garden in Oct/Nov 2001.