I think I have always known that digging in the dirt is good for your soul, but my soul limped along until I finally let gardening into my life.
I too was exposed to gardens as a child. I grew up in a suburb of New York City in an old house with a lovely rose garden out back, tended by my mother. But I never thought it was very interesting – not a place where you could play tag, and the thorns were a deterrent in hide and seek. I did, however, play the role of a flower in my kindergarten class play.
Through my adult years while I was going to school and then juggling a career at the National Institutes of Health and parenting two active boys, I can’t remember doing much of anything that would come close to establishing a relationship with plants – unless you count picking up lettuce and broccoli at the grocery store. At one point, I did try to grow tomatoes in my back yard. The problem was, we had chosen a back yard filled with trees. The tomatoes didn’t like that very much.
When we moved to a new house (also with nothing but trees in the back yard) I hired someone to do the landscaping. I had no confidence in my own ability to know what to plant or how to make plants thrive.
Maybe we all become our parents when we get old. While I was struggling to keep the occasional houseplant alive, my parents’ thumbs were green as could be. Both were affiliated with Dartmouth-Hitchcock and lived in Etna, where they tended gardens with passion and skill. My mother spent hours in a greenhouse attached to her dining room. My father grew veggies and sweet peas. When my parents moved to Kendal, my mother lovingly nurtured an orchid collection that she ultimately donated to Dartmouth (with one of her orchids displayed in the President’s office). (The picture below is of an orchid I sent her from Hawaii – one of those shoots they sell to tourists. We were both amazed that it grew!)
I wish I had a picture to illustrate this next story about my mother, but it’s gone missing. When my husband George and I were courting in our last years of college, he brought me a small geranium plant. I kept it in my room where it was much admired by visitors until its leaves started to yellow and the original blooms disappeared never to return. Desperate not to kill George’s gift, I took it to my mother. Not surprisingly, it thrived under her care. The problem was, the geranium soon had a companion. It turned out that one of my visitors had planted a marijuana seed in the pot, and that had also thrived under my mother’s care. She promptly dispatched the hitchhiker and over the years transformed the tiny geranium into a tree 5 feet tall and covered with blooms.
I think it was my mother’s plant prowess that kept the embers of gardening interest alive for me. It took moving to Grantham to fan those embers into life. When we established our summer home on Winter Hill in 2010, I started growing things in containers. Five years later, as a 65th birthday present, we built a raised garden bed next to our driveway to accommodate the flowers, herbs, and veggies I wanted to grow. After ignoring the landscaping at our house for many years, I finally began to experiment with new plants in other spaces around our property.
Currently, I’m retired but still working (unpaid) on issues that captured me during my professional life. I’m a senior advisor to a scientific organization focused on understanding how the conditions in which people live, work and play affect their health and longevity, and how this helps us understand, and address, the massive differences in health among different groups in our county. I’ve been running a mentoring program for young scientists, helping with strategic planning, and doing odd jobs for the organization. All this has helped to keep me engaged during the Pandemic, but it also gives me the flexibility to attend to my soul by digging in the dirt. Joining the Garden Club last summer was inspired by admiration for my wonderful Grantham gardening friends, and an act of faith in myself, that maybe I am a gardener after all.