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Monday, June 27, 2016

Gardens I Have Loved


As I take my evening bike ride, I am delighted to see and smell the many gardens that bloom in our neighborhood. On warm evenings there's often the scent of sweet petunias, languid lilies and spicy marigolds on the breeze. There are so many kinds of gardens along my five mile route but there is one that I like particularly... What I think of as "The Man Yard”.

I've been lucky to know a couple of really good gardeners. Perhaps my favorite is my German aunt who has the most enormous garden filled with perennial borders, roses, raspberries and countless little “rooms”. It's a garden in the true European style – expansive, overflowing and abundant. It looks effortless in its informality, which is perhaps the hardest thing of all to achieve. It's a place to get lost in and a perfect idyll on hot summer days. I have the happiest memories of playing in that garden and of eating raspberries, Concord grapes, apples and dusty Italian plums that were such fun to polish to a shine.  In the autumn I was sometimes allowed to help with burning the leaves which was a great treat, and a chance to spend time alone with my wonderful aunt.

My late grandfather was another kind of gardener entirely. He was a bachelor for his first forty years and a widower for the last twenty. But this fact never took away from his commitment to perfectly clean and well-kept surroundings.  His was unapologetically what I'd call a “Man Yard” and I think of him each time I see others just like it.

A "Man Yard" is, first, exceptionally tidy with every shrub clipped, every blade of grass equal in height and hue.  It also contains only flowers and plants that one can easily buy at the local hardware store. The scent of fertilizer and barbecue smoke are often present, and early in the morning sprinklers can be heard. There is almost always a fence of some sort – certainly separating the front from the back yard and sometimes all around the property, front lawn included. The fence must be simple white picket or, equally acceptable, chain link. There is no pretension to this yard. The keeper of the "Man Yard" aims for beauty, yes, but also order and organization. It is an extension of the rest of the man's life which will likely include a spotless garage that smells of gasoline and oil and some sort of workshop in the back yard – rock polishing in my grandfather's case.

My grandfather's yard surrounded an equally tidy and well-kept home. The house itself is was a compact mid-century ranch style. It had shutters, as all such houses must, and it was air conditioned. There was a “front room” used exclusively for “company” and a perfectly kept 1950's kitchen with a giant white range with which my grandmother made Friday night fudge and Sunday afternoon roasts. It's the kind of house where you would find powdered sugar donuts, coffee and plenty of packs of playing cards.  You'd also find an ashtray and book of matches always at hand because, despite an almost slavish devotion to cleanliness, smoking was a way of life.  In fact, I can't even picture my grandfather without a cigarette or a cup of coffee.

My grandfather's yard was the epitome of "The Man Yard".  There were always hedges. Tall, deep green laurel and, for good measure and added work, perfectly clipped boxwood. (There is nothing like the scent of recently clipped boxwood to make one think of simpler, happier times that probably never existed.) The front yard contained several large hydrangeas, the blue of which astonished and delighted every year. The pathway and porch were always swept. There were deep red geraniums in clay pots – they seemed to grow larger every year – and there was sweet alyssum and sky blue “Crystal Palace” lobelia planted with them. There were also huge, drooping fuschias in impossible colors hanging on the front porch and, every evening, the front door was opened and a light breeze carried the noise of the children playing in the street through the aluminum screen door. Along one side of the front yard there were rows of some sort of show flower – blazing dahlias in every color and shape from pom pom to dinner plate or the tall and tropical looking gladioli that would make one think twice about their designation as “funeral flowers”.

The back yard was nothing less than a slightly more utilitarian version of the front. Utilitarian only because it contained, along with more flowers, the vegetable patch. The back yard and its toolshed had a place for everything and everything truly was in its place.

Along the fence - sturdy chain link in the back - there was a line of roses.   And what roses they were!  There are bright red “American Beauties”, pearly pink “Queen Elizabeth” and peachy, glowing “Peace” roses. There was also a silvery white “John F. Kennedy” and a brilliant yellow variety of unknown origin that produced the most aromatic blooms on long, deep red stems.  The leaves on these rose bushes were uniformly shiny, the deepest green, and would never dare to be weak enough to fall prey to blackspot or any other mundane disease. These were champion roses, and the man of the house knew it. The roses were a source of conversation for my grandfather and his longtime neighbor – the one who never seemed to have any luck with his roses or tomatoes or strawberries.

The vegetable patch was laid out in neat rows along the opposite side of the yard. The side that edged against “the other neighbor”. The neighbor with the enormous, constantly barking Doberman. The neighbor who mowed his lawn, but only on every third Sunday of the month and, generally, at around 6 a.m. Despite this lack of neighborly harmony, the vegetable plot remained a constant source of pride. There was no place in the yard that had richer soil or fewer weeds. The very idea of a weed would have caused my grandfather to crawl, on hands and knees, between the rows of green beans, sweet corn and Beefsteak tomatoes, daring the tiny invaders to show their green shoots. From this vegetable garden he produced bushels of carrots and radishes, lettuces and beets, baskets of tomatoes and endless barrows of squash and zuchini. There was more than enough to see my grandfather through to the next summer, and neighbors up and down his block were welcome to take what they liked from the cardboard boxes and brown paper bags marked “FREE” that sat along the curb in front of his tidy house with that square of emerald green lawn. If you asked him what he used to produce this bounty he'd likely answer humbly, “Nothing special.  Oh, maybe a little Miracle-Gro.”

The back yard also had beds that overflowed with petunias in patriotic plantings of red, white and deep purple. There were marigolds in perfect rows, arranged by height, with the huge, tall, yellow varieties at the back and the daintier gold and rust colored blooms in front. There were snapdragons and plots of cosmos and hollyhocks which appeared every year in places that they were never intended to grow.  In that shady spot under the bathroom window there was always a solid mass of pink and white impatiens carpeting an area a yard long.   And, on the shaded cement patio, among the ancient, white-painted Adirondack chairs that would have to last another year, were clay pots of red geraniums and blue lobelia and white alyssum, just like those that lined the front porch. Finally, providing just a hint of the tropics, more pink and purple and red and white hanging fuschias that swayed gently in the early evening breezes so sweet in the hot summer.

My grandfather himself appeared in the early mornings and early evenings to survey his masterpiece. He would look to the left and to the right and consider the height of the corn and the redness of the tomatoes.  He would stoop to pick out an invisible weed from the perfectly smooth expanse of green, green grass and, for a moment, he was content.  The whole property was a mirror of him: simple and straightforward and calming. It exuded silent, uncomplicated competence and strength.  In fact, most of things he did in his life were just like that - quiet and invisible to others, but always reliable. 



2 comments:

  1. I forgot all about the annual "burning leaves" event. There was always something going on in that garden on McClure Lane! -such as picking up the apples... I guess some of these "events" were less or more exciting.

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  2. What a wonderful trip to your grandfather's yard/garden, Jake! It reminds me of my parents' yard, my grandmother's, and several other neighbors of the past. Thanks sharing. It made me homesick... in a good way!

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