Learning my mom’s love of plants has been a lifelong process.
My mother is a teacher. She has worked at a small elementary school in southwest Calgary for over twenty years teaching music and whatever grade they can slot her into. For my entire childhood, from September to the end of June, she spent her days at school wrangling twenty-five seven-year-olds, planning concerts, choreographing assemblies, and arranging choral numbers. At five o’clock she would come to pick my sister and I up to rush us, bowl of spaghetti and canned sauce precariously placed upon our laps, to ballet, piano, and violin classes. I can hardly remember my mother doing something just for herself during the school year.
As a single mom, her time with friends often coincided with our playdates with those friends’ children. She would bring piles of marking to my piano and ballet lessons, pausing her carefully printed commenting once and a while to listen to my teachers’ praises and rebukes, or simply to listen to me fumble through a scale. She began to regain a bit of time during her evenings when I finally passed my driver’s test and could drive my sister and I to our respective after-school engagements. So, from when I was five to when I was sixteen, from September to the end of June, my mother devoted her days and nights to us.
July was different, however. July was the beginning of my mom’s summer vacation. And summer meant that she could garden.
My sister, Heather, and I have grown up and moved out, but each summer plays out in the same reverential ritual. As the weather grows warmer, my mother spends more and more time outdoors. The melting snow unveils ground for the planting of seeds. The thawing earth gives way to a shovel. Fresh, dark compost scatters over peeking, tender shoots.
Wearing old jeans and running shoes, covered with a fine veil of dirt, mom is in her element. Her front yard, large compared to her small bungalow, brightens from dull brown to vibrant green, and slowly— so slowly that you don’t know it’s happening until it’s right before you— unfurls into bursts of colour.
Mom isn’t picky with colour schemes or aesthetic placement— she cares only that her plants will receive the right light and the right shelter to thrive. Brown-eyed susans crane their spindly stems to peer their yellow heads over deep blue cornflowers.
Various pots, repurposed from basins and old kitchen pots, overflow with a medley of geraniums and marigolds. Creeping hordes of sweet peas climb through the holes in the fence, like crowds of white, blue, pale pink, and purple butterflies. Her back yard, slightly more shaded than the front, is home to rows upon rows of lettuce, spinach, kale, swiss chard, peas, broccoli, zucchini, and one enormous cluster of rhubarb. Unable to resist, she plants flowers between the rows, brightening them with purple irises in the spring, and tiger lilies in the summer.
A rapidly-growing crabapple tree, planted several years ago to replace a dying mayday, erupts into cloudy blossoms each May and grows heavy with crabapples in late-August.
My sister and I always admired the garden for its beauty, but resented it for its work. We never understood why mom dug into her garden, cultivating and pruning, with such relish. The two hours— two and a half, if it was a hot day— of watering was the most daunting task we could imagine. For the first couple of years that we were old enough, mom would stand beside us as we watered, speaking up only if we had neglected a particular plant, or if our carelessness resulted in the garden hose decapitating a low-lying bud. We hated the job with a passion, but never dared to neglect it for fear of being responsible for the wilting of any plant.
As I grew, I felt certain about one aspect of my future: I would never, ever subject myself to the work and responsibility of a garden.
Then, at the age of twenty-two, I moved into a house.
The yard was poorly-tended; previous tenants had let the lawn devolve into a cacophonous amalgamation of weeds. My boyfriend and I tried to tame the wilds, digging unsuccessfully at the hard earth, rife with thick dandelion roots. We eventually achieved a modicum of control and ended our onslaught, dirty and discouraged.
But when summer started, something felt off. There was no pop of colour in my yard. I missed the satisfaction of noting a plump bud, ready to burst. So I bought a small flower pot. My mother dug out three marigold plants (“You’d have to try to kill these!”), and gave me a yogurt container of rich, composted soil. I planted the marigolds, terrified that they had been destroyed during the twenty-minute journey to my house. They were limp and muted, and one of the bright orange flowers had snapped off in the front seat. I felt like a failure, watering half-heartedly, convinced that my decidedly un-green thumb had massacred these innocent flowers. A plant that my mother had claimed “grow even when the world is ending” was dying in my cheap, three-dollar, plastic flower pot.
However, despite their initially bleak appearance, the plants eventually stood up straight. New flowers bloomed.
I was hooked.
Since that summer, I have resolved to grow my novice’s garden a little bit every year. When I move this spring, I have resolved to dig up the soil in my new yard and fill it with blooms and vegetables. When I visit my mom and she excitedly shows me new plants, I’m excited too. I can hardly believe it, but my thumb may now be tinted slightly green.
When I asked my mom if my now-fiancé and I could hold our wedding reception in her garden, she said yes. She said it nonchalantly, as if she had anticipated it all along. My fiancé and I will celebrate the start of our new life in the garden my mom has cultivated. The place where she has experienced so much joy is, and will always be, one of my favourite places as well. The last time I visited my mom, she showed me new, pale yellow hydrangeas that will, she says, be absolutely beautiful for my September wedding.
Author: Rebecca Lietz-Salomons