Dirtying our hands, feeding our souls

First thing this morning I went outside and cut the remaining zinnia blossoms from one of our flower pots. I felt a sense of completion as I cut off large swaths, stripped off the lower drying leaves, and arranged the stems in a vase. Orange, pink, purple. Yes, I too felt a bit of sadness at this close of summer when I pulled the now mostly spent plant out of the pot and dumped it in the compost. Ah. October. My favorite month. The month of looking back, settling in, cleaning up messes we’ve made.

Some of the most vivid memories I have of my grandmother Whowho toward the end of her life, is her love of puttering in her patio gardening. Showing off her favorite plants or blossoms. I wish I better remembered more. As documented in My Music Man, when Dad lost his job, our family moved from LaGrande into my grandparent’s home in Southwest Portland. Dad’s parents asserted they were ready to downscale into apartment living. I don’t know if they honestly were but I’m certain they did want to do what they could to help appease my dad’s worries about supporting our large family. The Vista St. Clair was mere blocks from our house, and thus began my teen-hood daily after school or evening visits to hang out with this adored grandmother. (Only a handful of years before I too visited my grandmother daily as we all lived on Wilsonville’s Montgomery Way.) A few years later after getting my driver’s license, Whowho occasionally loaned me her huge white Plymouth, I regularly cleaned their bathrooms (including my grandfather’s as he entered kidney dialysis) and occasionally ran errands to places like Elephants to pick up his favorite custard. When I shared the news that I would attend college in Missoula, she gave me money to buy a new pair of Danner hiking boots. But mostly I remember her garden. My grandparents were privileged to have an apartment with a large patio. Today I seem to remember rows and rows, hundreds of pots, some holding small trees – although I know the patio could not have been that big. Yet I am certain, it was this offering that assured my grandmother that apartment living would be okay. She who once drove a jeep in unincorporated Wilsonville, had sheep to shear and along with a few litters of ducklings. Whowho, my namesake, was a bit of a rebel and enjoyed telling me tales of snobby old ladies who too lived in the Vista St. Clair. I have no idea how they viewed her, but I know she too was friendly and kind, and I suspect she used me as an outlet to share things she would never do in other social spaces.

Flash forward to when my parents remarried and downsized together into a condo. Mom found solace in her deck with pots, and a small garden bed outside her front door. Even years later after Dad died and she moved into assisted living, she would spend time in the rose garden, secretly picking one for her own, or for a short time cheering me on as I planted a few pots she could admire outside her apartment window.

Since early June, my favorite part of the day has been my own pre-work early morning pot puttering, dead heading, cutting a new bouquet for the day. Yes, I have always loved flowers and admired neighboring cutting gardens, always imagining housing a wondrous flowering English Garden. Our lot is largely shaded complete with heavy clay soil, popular with bold, browsing deer. Most summers of my past, once the flowers have made it past slugs and deer, I have been hesitant to cut many of them. And thus my fabulous 2022 lesson – maintaining pots for cutting flowers. Pots I can move to sunny safely protected spaces -so far our neighborhood deer haven’t climbed stairs or upon decks or porches. Last spring I filled pots with small starts – dahlias, snapdragons, zinnias, cosmos (okay, those I really did start from seed). I felt a bit like I was cheating, somehow, it was all so easy. No heavy clay to keep amending, even though the rains over the years seem to bring it all back, no deer to shoo from the garden. Along the way, hard-working Russ worked to rebuild our dilapidated raised beds, and so I also started all of our vegetables in pots. While I didn’t have the yield of previous years, most meals we still had lettuce, peas, kale, cucumbers, tomatoes, basil (yes pesto). We even have a few acorn squash and pumpkins that volunteered into the now new raised beds thanks to last year’s compost.

Numerous articles and studies document the positive impact of digging in the dirt. Last month the Oregonian featured one titled, “The benefits of digging in the dirt.” These publications document the benefits to our health and well-being from being in nature and gardening. Researchers like Dr. Christopher Lowry contend that exposure to microorganisms by children in the natural world reduces risk of allergies and inflammatory diseases. While the research is important, in our hearts we already know how good we feel when we spend time in nature, in the earth and in our gardens.

I’m not expert in any of this, but my own summer experience leaves me with one exciting reminder. I do believe I received just as much joy tending my few pots as I have in caring for a much larger landscape. This too gives us hope that this joy is not only available to those with the privilege of owning a home with a large yard, but we can all find it from tending a few pots. Might it be that simplifying might just remove the “too much to do” stressor to let us focus on a few flowers. Watching a single pot of cucumbers or peas show the miracle of growth. All of this too reminds us of the power of community gardens, and gardening and nature programs for children and the elderly. It too makes me think of my dear friends Karen and Kris. They both knew this as well as anyone and dedicated time to help others also find this joy. And so, as I take in the beauty of my vase of late season zinnias, I too honor and remember Karen, Kris, Whowho, Mom and all other lovers of natural beauty.

Mom at Portland’s Washington Park rose garden.

One thought on “Dirtying our hands, feeding our souls

  1. Pingback: Speaking of life | Dede's Books and blog

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