In May 1992 I had my first feature story (with photographs) in Western Living. Rosemary and I had been gardening in our new Athlone St. home since 1986 and by then we sort of thought we knew enough that I could write about it. I will include that article here, verbatum and as I transcribe it I am sure I will gasp of the ignorance of it all! As my grandmother used to say, "La ignorancia es atrevida." (Ignorance is daring.)
The Education of a Gardener
When you don't know the difference between a philodendron and a rhododendron, it is nice to have a ghost around the house that you can turn for advice.
I never met Kay Young. But I have come to know her quite well through her garden. When my wife Rosemary, and I purchased her home in the fall of 1986, we were in love with the house but terrified of the yard. The plants and the flowers had been neglected by the interim owners, while a large rectangular patch of dead grass was evidence that a trampoline had once dominated the back yard. The carp in the fish pond swam blindly in murky water. When it came to gardening, we had no better sense of direction. I didn't know the difference between a rhododendron and a philodendron, or that perennials come back.
Despite this ignorance of all things botanical, I was amazed by the transformation of the garden that first spring. Green sprouts began to pop up out of nowhere. The plants seemed to beckon for my attention. Still, I was afraid as the first time my newborn daughter was placed in my hands and I didn't know how to hold her.
When Kay and her husband, Bill, bought the mock Tudor on this corner lot in Kerridale in 1952, the house was as lovely as it is now, but the landscaping was nondescript. Kay immediately set to work. She planted the hawthorn and a laurel hedge in the front yard, and put in cherry trees and an apple tree in the back. She chose her rhododendrons and azaleas so that they would bloom consecutively between January and June. A circular flower bed in the middle of the lawn showed off her hybrid tea roses. She had a fish pond built, but was never able to keep it from leaking.
Next to the gazebo she planted a very fragrant red climbing rose and two flowering Japanese quinces. A neighbour's thujas eventually grew so tall they blocked out the sun on the south side. Undeterred, Kay simply added shade-loving (A 2008 correction. I must interject here that my Atlanta gardener friend, W. George Schmid has told me that there is no such thing and that some plants are shade tolerant.)ferns, white astilbes, periwinkles, violets and Salomon's seal. Her green thumb knew no bounds. Outside the white picket fence, she planed more roses and delphiniums in the lane.
Although she was alone after her husband died in 1979, she couldn't leave her plants. Then in her eighties and unable to do the upkeep herself, she hired Harry Nomura to be her hands. Harry, who had been taking care of gardens in the neighbourhood for more than 20 years, never seemed to mind her supervision.
I would eventually turn to Harry for help. When one of our evergreens suddenly wilted, the attending tree doctor was more like a funeral director. "It's tree rot. Nothing can be done. Remove it." The rhododendrons developed notches, cause by weevilgs that I was never able to see, let alone fight. When I asked friends of advice, the instructions were completley baffling. "Lime it. De-thatch it. Spray it."
It was time to bring in a professional. When Harry mowed our lawn with his ancient English reel mower, complete with a front grass catcher, I would spy from the top window to figure out the routine. My feeble attempts at copying him met with a stinging rebuke from my wife, "Harry wouldn't do it that way," she'd say. "You'd better go and ask Harry. "Harry was God, but I wasn't much of a prophet. His most mysterious act was the fall pruning, which seemed to be somewhere between integral calculus and brain surgery. Yet whenever I asked Harry to identify some of the plants, he would answer in his cryptic English, "Japonica this or japonica that." According to the gospel of Harry, we were the guardians of yard full of japonicas.
By our second year in Kay's house, I was beginning to know my way around a plant encyclopedia. Investigating on my own I realized that some of Harry's japonicas were really hydrangeas, magnolias and the brightest of read camellias. Instead of the frightening unknown, the garden had become an edless source of wonder. A weedlike shrub I almost cut down was actually a buddleia , whose fragrant purple blooms attracted butterflies, bees andthe odd daring snail. An azalea that I had left for dead in the winter bloomed again in spring. It turdend out to be decidious. One day I discovered an aluminum tag under the climbing rose, identifying it as Don Juan. It had died after a late March frost, but I was quickly able to replace it.
I began to do more and Harry less. Of course a little knowledge is dangerous. Brown patches of dead grass suddenly appeared, the result of too much fertilizer. The bits of grass that I then planted to cover up the bare spots developed into agressive patches of crab grass. Still, after a full year under Harry's tutelage, I was feeling confident, overconfident, in fact. I no longer looked at liming the lawn in the spring as one of life's great mysteries. Like scarifying or hand de-thatching, it had become routine. Instead of following Harry's lead and trimming the long laurel hedge in the front garden with mechanical trimmers (he never uses the electrical variety, saying they chew up the thick branches without cutting them cleanly), I decided to do Harry one better, pruning it one leaf at a time with rose secateurs.
The last time I hired Harry, it was my turn to utter the rebuke. As part of the fall cleanup, he had gone ahead and pruned the many hydrangeas, cutting off the dry mopheads that protect the emerging buds from the late winter frosts. That didn't mean that I was beyond reproach myself. I was smart enough not to ask Harry why my roses had lost all their leaves by summer. Much later I found out that my indiscriminate late-afternoon waterings had prevented the rosebushes from drying, leaving them susceptible to black spot.
Such wisdom doesn't come easily or cheaply. I now own endless books about shrubs, roses, hostas and perennials, and too many guides to growing the perfect lawn. Most of them look good on the coffee table, but only a few are useful to be dog-eares wit use, such as my Wyman's Gardening Encyclopedia. I also have four years' worth of garden sprinklers; a series of plastic cheapies finally ended with an investment in a solid brass pulsating one.
As I adjust the brass sprinkler to avoid the roses, I can feel Kay Young's presence. Sitting on the soft moss and Corsican mint that grow under the Japanese maple by the pond, I picture her in her plastic rain cap and plastic boots snipping the wilted fern fronds. There are still so many puzzles. I don't understand, for example, why the wisteria near the kitchen never blooms. I have done everything the experts suggest, even ignoring it as some books suggest. I would like to ask Kay if it bloomed for her and what her secret was, but she lives in Toronto now. At the age of 83, she had a stroke in my kitchen, where she lay on the linoleum for two days until a neighbour found her. That was when she had to finally give up the garden, selling the house and moving to Ontario to live with her sister.
Thanks to Rosemary, one of the lessons that I have learned is that it is futile to keep the garden the same, in memory of Kay. Although a dead Don Juan rose can always be replaced, gardens evolve, all by themselves. Rosemary wanted a new perennial bed. She made numerous trips to nurseries and came back with hardy geraniums, white lily of the Nile, exotic Himalayan blue poppies, and white bleedig hearts. I have developed an obsession for a plant Kay never thought of, an exotic leafed shade loving perennial called a hosta. My collection now numbers more than a hundred, fighting Kay's rhododendrons for prominence.
As Kay's presence slowly diminishes, there is another person I am getting to know through her garden. Me. The apple and the cherry trees died, one by one, of blight and old age, yet I no longer grieve for what's gone. Their places have been taken by a young kinkgo, a stewartia with beautiful defoliating bark and robinia 'Frisia.' It's golden leaves shimmer in the breeze, the dark green thuja behind it providing the perfect contrasting frame. Looking out of the windows from my home, I cannot tire of the view.
Six years after being dismayed at the prospect of a garden, I'm now impatient for spring to come. I look forward to the minuteman-missile-shaped cones of my hosta shoots. The first ones to emerge are always Hosta lancifolia. Some like Hosta sieboldiana 'Blue Lake,' will grow to the size of a dinner plate. They will attract the spring training slugs and snails before they tackle the summer flowering buddleia. Sometimes Harry comes by, and he compliments me on my work: "Roses good this year." I smile. I may not be Harry, not yet, but I do have been well supervised.
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