“If April Showers bring May flowers, what do May flowers bring?”
My co-instructor told that joke last time we were teaching science to 5th graders. The kids appreciated it, or at least they humored us. I associate jokes like that with an age that I feel like I never quite left: the age before eye rolling and banter with quick-witted sarcasm. The age when clean puns are still funny.
I also associate May flowers with my mother. She taught me how to say “for-sithy-uh” and “pack-a-sandra” and “impatience.” My Mother’s Day gift to her growing up was usually a flowering plant, but that was for her, not me. To my mind back then, it was only ladies of a certain age who belonged to garden clubs and spent a lot of time and effort and thought on something that didn’t really seem worth it. Vegetables, maybe–I mean, at least you can eat those. But flowers? They smelled, they made me sneeze. And even worse, people brought them inside, where they died and shriveled up and became creepy. Flowers for Algernon. A Rose for Emily. Thanks but no thanks.
I’ve been an on-and-off reader of Laura Vanderkam’s blog for years. As a business writer, she writes about managing time and money. Several years ago, she wrote a blog called “What does it mean to be frugal?” that resonated with me. In it, she describes moving into a new house, where the “landscaper had a great sense of the eastern Pennsylvania rainfall and seasons, because with no upkeep whatsoever, a series of flowers has bloomed in that yard from March until June. One sequence of flowers comes up, then when it dies, another takes its place” (italics mine). Ever since reading that blog, I realized: that’s the kind of yard, and those are the kind of flowers, I want. Flowers that stay outside and require no upkeep whatsoever, but that make your life better because of their beauty and harmony with the seasons.
Like Vanderkam’s house, our house had some landscaping done by the previous owner, but whether due to age or neglect, it was not blooming in an orderly series (or, sometimes, not blooming at all). Bushes got crushed or bent out of shape by snow during the winter. Perennials and bulbs got hidden by weeds or overgrown bushes. One year I ordered some plants from the Farmers’ Market. They were locally grown and supposed to be adapted to our New England environment. I planted them in the backyard and then one night they just disappeared–a critter’s meal. A big tree branch crushed a flowering rhododendron during a windstorm. My husband also managed to mow down a rose bush with the lawn mower. And on top of all that, our yard is mostly shady. It gets a little sun at certain times of day, in certain places. But tulips weren’t blooming, phlox died, and bunnies and squirrels continued to feast.
I decided I needed to lower my expectations. I was now myself a lady of a certain age, but unlike Mr. McGregor in a Beatrix Potter book, I wanted to co-exist with the bunnies, and with the squirrels, who have built at least 7 nests in the trees around our property, a few seen peeking above the roof when there are no leaves on the trees. And, like it or not, I needed to co-exist with the snow.
No upkeep? Well…
One thing I did was plant blooming perennials. First I planted daffodils, a free offer from the Breck’s catalog. Then I planted tulips (I bought those). Then I tried a couple of sorry-looking specimens from Home Depot, bought on sale at the end of their flowering season. One was called Dicentra spectabilis. At least that’s what I called it, “dicentra” for short. It had a lot of pretty leaves and it grew big and filled the space where I put it, only to die way back in the winter. There were also some ferns that grew along the garden border, from moss that I decided not to get rid of, because, at least it was green and didn’t have to be mowed. Hostas acted about the same as dicentra: started out small, but soon grew like gangbusters, without fertilizer and without watering. The daffodils and tulips, too. I didn’t water or fertilize them, and I didn’t cut them down for weeks, until the leaves themselves started to turn brown and shrivel up on their own.
This year I had 11 tulips, which was 10 1/2 more than last year. (I’m calling the one that lasted for 24 hours before becoming bunny food 1/2). They get their sun, but only at certain times of the day. These almost looked like they were genetically engineered with some kind of fluorescent protein, but it’s just the way the sun hits them for about an hour.
The rose bush that my husband accidentally mowed grew back, surprisingly, and yielded many pretty red roses. I made a few cuttings and put these under jars that someone else had discarded. This year I have 3 rose bushes instead of 1. We know that original rose bush is a survivor. We hope that its offspring are, too.
The daffodils have become my friends over the past several years. I see their little green shoots poking through, and I know the snow is going to end eventually. My garden blooming felt like a symbol of hope two years ago, just after the trauma of the Boston Marathon Bombings and the manhunt less than a mile from here.
On Mother’s Day, my mother just got back from Holland and we were discussing tulips, and dicentra. Both are blooming this year, in kind of a sequence, without much upkeep. “What’s dicentra?” she asked. It’s apparently called “Bleeding Heart,” but I rather prefer the Latin. I don’t want a garden that’s bleeding. Mother’s Day this year was all about chocolate. And flowers in the garden.