You can teach yourself a lot about a garden or you can let the garden teach you.
My daughter recently returned to California after a monthlong visit. I sure didn't want to see her leave. I wanted her to stay right here, to move back to Kansas, in fact. Still, she left.
Gardens are a lot like our children. We love, cherish and take care of them, doing our best to help them grow and thrive. We cautiously watch them live out their lives in search of our vision of perfection. Even so, we never know how things will turn out until they turn out. Satisfaction emerges as we learn to go with their flow instead of ours.
Sometimes when I travel to see a garden, I'm not quite sure what I will find. I've conjured up imagines of what it will look like based on information I've already received. Still, I am often surprised, though I've never been disappointed.
When I recently made a trek to the garden spot of Keith and Ocoee Miller in a rural area near Lone Star Lake, I did not see what I anticipated. The garden was far better than I pictured.
You see, a few weeks earlier I had received a hand-written letter from Ocoee detailing five papaya trees growing in her garden. "My small gardens are not the most beautiful in the county, " she wrote, "but are certainly among the most unusual." She had enclosed a picture of her holding a large tree-ripened papaya next to one of the trees in full bloom, urging me to visit soon. "The first frost will certainly be their death knell," she had written. Wondering how I was going to write about papaya trees, I remembered that my daughter has taught me to go with the flow. I called to arrange a visit.
Lost in an adventure
Two noisy, large black dogs announced my arrival. Only when Ocoee came to greet me, did I step out into the perfect autumn afternoon. I could barely see the house and garden built below the level of the gravel driveway through a mass of treetops that surround them.
"When we bought the land, it was just dense jungle," she told me as we walked down wide stone and railroad tie steps to the garden level. "It took us a year to cut a trail down from the county road. It took us a whole summer to clear just this little area where we knew we wanted to put the house."
She told me that she and her husband made a deal with the forest.
"You let us live here, and we will clear as little land as possible, and we will molest as few plants as possible," they had promised.
As we proceeded, I realized I was about to embark on a wonderful adventure that would include a walk through a garden filled with fragrant night blooming plants, a medicinal and herb garden and a large vegetable garden. I would see scarlet runner bean plants grown "strictly for foolishness because they are so pretty," and a three bin compost area. And I would see dozens of tropical castor bean plants and a dwarf lemon tree covered with large ripening lemons.
Feeding the flowers
Two ponds border the left side of the walkway, the sound of gently cascading water accompanied each step.
"These two ponds and the waterfall all came about as a matter of necessity," she explained. "We had to deal with the slope."
To the right of the steps, tall impatiens and coleus grow in pots. Hostas fill in the empty spaces. The entire area is completely shaded by oak, hickory, walnut, redbud and hackberry trees.
"My problem with flowers is we hardly have any sun," Ocoee said. "This is an ancient hardwood forest and the sun almost never comes in here."
We moved to an area containing two large flower beds planted heavily with lilies, gladioli, hyacinths, grape hyacinths, daffodils, phlox, peonies and mums, lots of mums.
"I have to feed these beds pretty intensely," said Ocoee. "In general everything is successful, except the mums. Every year we go through this. We get this far and the frost comes" preventing the remaining buds from opening. A few mums were blooming, but most were not.
"Sometimes I think I'm just not destined to have mums," she said.
See what I mean about gardens? Sometimes they do their own thing and you have to go with their flow.
Yet, Ocoee herself goes against the flow by daring to grow tropical fruit trees. She showed me one of her prized papaya trees. The 2-year-old tree is growing in a large container submerged in the ground. "We've only been doing this a couple of years so I don't know a whole lot about the cycle yet," she admitted. "I don't know how long it will tolerate being in a pot."
The tree has almost doubled its height after being trimmed back earlier this year and has begun putting out more blossoms. Small papaya fruit are already forming at the upper leaves near the trunk. "This is the papaya that actually bore for us this year," she noted. "These will hang on there green all winter and hopefully next summer will ripen." She told me papayas ripen very slowly, taking about six months. To protect the baby fruit, the tree will be hauled in the house before the frost arrives.
We walked to a small water garden nearby.
"As you see, the arms of the house kind of wrap around" this garden, Ocoee pointed out. Hosta, ajuga and ferns surround a small kidney shaped pond. A miniature fountain sprays up delicate streams of water near one end.
"This is a little memorial garden," she said. "My mother designed this garden when she had cancer and knew she wasn't going to be with us very long."
She explained that her mother had been an avid gardener and enjoyed sitting in a chair the fall before she died as Ocoee planted spring bulbs. Her mother never saw the flowers bloom but she had requested that her ashes be placed in the garden.
After her father's death five years later, Ocoee recalled his wish to be with his wife in this place they had come to call "Grandma's Garden." A small sanctuary behind the pool of water now holds their ashes in two urns. "So this is like a little ancestor shrine," she said. "It's just my parents. And I love the idea of it. I love having them still with us. I like having their spirit and their teachings and their energy close. And I don't have to wait for Memorial Day. I can take her a fresh flower every day."
At one with the forest
We had walked to a small wooden bench overlooking a steep hillside, treetops at eye level. Ocoee calls the place her morning meditation bench where she ponders such questions as "What do I need to know today?" and "What do I need to focus on?"
"Plants teach us so much," she said. "The more I work with plants, the more enamored I am. They have so much to give."
She remembered being overwhelmed when they first moved to the area 20 years ago. "There were trees everywhere," she told me. "Now, I've come to know them as individuals. I know which ones lose their leaves first. I know which ones have hollow holes where critters live and I know which ones have what kind of nuts. I know which ones groan when the freeze is particularly hard. I know them as individuals. It's an entirely different experience now that I know them. And they are family."
Like families everywhere, her garden offers it unique brand of noises. Ocoee mentioned a meditation group that periodically meets at her home to drum.
"We drum for almost two hours uninterrupted," she said. "It's very intense and relaxing and healing." Other percussion instruments such as gongs, bells and cymbals are used as well.
"When we do it out here, the forest chimes in," she noted. "The whippoorwills, coyotes and the frogs -- everybody starts making a noise." When the drumming stops, she said, "and there's sudden silence, there's still all this noise coming out of the forest."
We left her meditation bench and walked down many more steps to an even lower garden. "Here's my temple. I just love this place. It's the only flat land on our property," she said. "This little clearing has been feeding and nurturing people for generations. The topsoil here is about 8-feet deep." To prove her point, she easily plunged her hand into soft, crumbly loamy soil that made me envious. Used to manipulating heavy clay soil, I could not have imagined this.
I guess that's how it is with both gardens and children -- we never know what to expect. As our tour ended, I realized that when the freeze hits, these wonderful gardens would be gone. Just when things are going so well, they follow their own flow and leave. I know that's how it is with my daughter. Yet, I am comforted in knowing that, like our gardens, she will be back.
-- Carol Boncella is education coordinator at Lawrence Memorial Hospital. You can send e-mail to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.