Growing words

It started with a gleaming holly. We have a Hollis, whose pretty name means "from the holly-wood," the baby-names book told us. That was the first thing I planted. We have a Jake, so a Jacob's ladder, slender and distinctive, was next. And though I could not find a Nathaniel plant, I put in woolly lamb's ear because it was his favourite in his plot at Westdale's beautiful Teaching Garden. The downy leaves feel like your favourite dog's ears.

I had avoided gardening, being leery of attempting and falling short of the perfection I thought was the aim of it. I was wrong; this was a far more nuanced thing than I had dreamed, more about inspired guesswork and welcoming change 

The kids and I were more about wrecking than growing the original postage stamp of green in front of the house (with dish-soap giant-bubble mix, for instance, or by covering it with with a sprawling cardboard fort. There is a fair bit of Lego deep in that ground.)

But a garden was bound to happen. "It's like switching to CBC Radio," a friend told me. "At some point in adulthood gardening becomes inevitable."

I dug out that tiny front space, one spadeful after another of long-established turf and claggy soil. I wondered what to do about the dry, thickly needled circle of ground around the tall spruce tree. Luck led me to sweet woodruff, to a leggy and late-blooming chrysanthemum, and to the sidewalk in front of a neighbour's house, where she had put out a table covered in newly divided day lilies outgrowing her own garden. "Give them a good home!" read the taped-up sign.

I heaped triple-mix over the wooden rails too-crisply edging a narrow, empty bed (I could not pry them loose) and made the curve I craved. A man came to lay a little parenthesis of flagstones for a path. I dug in between the stones a purple-flowering thyme -- and dark Irish moss, which thinned out to pale patches.

Strangely, most of the rest of it remains, even as the light in the garden has shifted over 15 years as nearby trees, and mine, have grown larger. The wine-coloured sand-cherry, whose tiny blossoms smell each spring like fruity boiled sweets, has contorted itself into an oversized bonsai in order to get the sun it needs. The creamy clematis I trained up its slender trunk bursts into boisterous, saucer-sized bloom each June. The autumn monkshood comes out in deep blue at Thanksgiving and the sundrops persist brightly in part shade.

The geum the colour of coral lipstick vanished after a decade, the golden California poppies at the edge of the stonework gave up as the sun retreated, the pristine white bleeding heart has become dramatically smaller. I don't like its purple-prose Victorian name and, after Googling it just now, have found its delightful alternative, lady-in-a-bath.

I still garden a bit by name. I bought a glossy and fast-spreading chocolate-chip bugle weed because -- chocolate. During our household's preoccupation with Tolkein books and films, a dragon's-blood sedum. Hens-and-chicks were irresistible in name and growing habit and when nestled into limestone hollows that make me think of clambering on rocky beaches near Oliphant a half-century ago. In our perpetually overgrown back-yard beds I have just rediscovered the Prairie Joy rose I planted because the name reminded me of my family's homesteading past. And in front, edging and baked by the sidewalk, a stubborn, dependable pale-yellow lily flowered today, its first bloom of the summer matching its name: Happy Returns.

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