For my big sister Dorie, I always keep my four o'clocks going. Every summer, Dorie invited me to come across the Chesapeake Bay to live with her in Crisfield, Maryland, beginning when I was fifteen years old and she was a young bride of nineteen. That first year, in the tradition of our childhood home on the bay when we were kids, Dorie faithfully planted tomatoes and peppers behind her newly-constructed ranch home in a cleared woodland. This was fascinating to watch.
But what I liked best about Dorie's early gardening efforts when she was a young newlywed were her delightful four o' clock flowers.
Those lovely, lanky specimens graced her sun-dappled walk. I'm not sure if they ever opened their blooms at four o' clock (much to my teenage disappointment), but as the sun went down each day, they were a sight to see with their color-splashed flowers opening like trumpets. Many a hummingbird came to visit that sidewalk to flit and feast upon nectar.
In the same development where Dorie and her husband Donnie built their new home, there lived a southern woman named Pat. Dorie often visited Pat and usually brought me along during those hot summers in the mid-1970's. Pat, a mature woman, was a friendly, freckled southern belle who liked to relax in kimonos and who always offered us iced tea and snacks. I never grew tired of listening to her soft, musical inflections as she blessed us young women with her wisdom about family and homemaking.
But what I liked best about Pat's house was her huge picture window full of houseplants. I don't believe I had ever laid eyes on such décor in anyone's home before.
Although that window seemed to be filled from top to bottom with every kind of colorful specimen, I was particularly fascinated with Pat's hanging spider plants—especially the stalks growing out from the middle of them. What were those little grassy things attached to the ends? They looked like tiny versions of the big striped plant that was in the pot. Wanting to get a better look, I shyly stepped towards Pat's magical picture window to see it all. Pat seized that learning opportunity to quickly snip off several of those little grassy things and then handed them to me while instructing me to plant them in moist potting soil. She even gave me soil and a pot as well.
Pat's teaching style worked, and I was hooked from that day and forevermore. The idea of caring for a living thing that grew strong and beautiful and that would mature and reproduce in this manner gave me insight into a realm that I had never appreciated before.
Years passed, and I grew up and eventually acquired a home of my own in Delaware. Yet even with babies in tow, I was always planting something. (How did I do it back then? Must'a had a ton of energy ...)
Anyway, in my very own yard I began to plant things. But not just any old thing.
You see, before my husband James and I built that new home, we lived in a small apartment in Milford. Then we found out about a rental with a little more room: a run-down, ramshackle house on the outskirts of town owned by a skinny old man with a pipe named Mr. Webb. This old rental house had caught fire some years back, but against all laws of physics, it remained standing even though the chimney had separated from the house during the fire. We didn't care. We just needed a house.
The house was available because Mr. Webb had suddenly lost his tenant, a woman with a green thumb who had lived there for several years and who would never know her influence upon me, a student of gardening.
James and I went to visit our prospective, unoccupied rental for the first time just as April gave way to May that year. This transition is when many spring bloomers put on a show, when their secret beauty that lies unnoticed throughout the year is finally revealed for a small window of time. My husband and I happened to find the rental property's yard at just that precise moment in late spring.
The lady gardener must have known about the enchantment of April–into–May because she had constructed a springtime landscape so captivating that one barely noticed the house which was hanging on by a thread. The driveway was on a curve, so her entire "secret garden" was half-hidden until rounding the curve and parking. What a feast for the eyes! Although she was gone, evidence of the mystery gardening woman's hand was everywhere to be seen.
The driveway of that shack was lined in creeping phlox in various shades of pink, lavender, and magenta. Still more phlox cascaded over a rock-edged homemade pond into which suddenly splashed a giant bullfrog as we approached the door. Daffodils were still in bloom. The yard was full of lilacs and was draped in wisteria trellises, and the grass was dotted with wooly violets (blue and variegated), and hyacinths. Did I mention rose bushes? Yes, there were many rose bushes. We even found grape vines growing in what appeared to be an abandoned vegetable garden.
But I only know the names of all those plants in retrospect. Had I known more about gardening back then, I would have had a wonderful time of discovery while exploring that rental property in a horticultural game of hide-n-seek. However, I was still a budding plant enthusiast who was just beginning to try annuals, let alone perennials. Thus it was my father-in-law Gordon who identified the strange green and purple plant flourishing in the corner of the remains of the small vegetable garden. Gordon yanked some of the purple-tinged stalks out from the base of that rhubarb plant and promptly went home and had rhubarb pie, thanks to the talents of Lois, my industrious mother-in-law.
After two years, James and I had to leave the dilapidated rental property due to its run-down state and impending demolition by Mr. Webb's relatives, but fortunately we had already begun to build a house just a few miles away when the eviction notice came. We were graciously given a few more months to wait out the completion of our new ranch home in Delaware. We had two young children and a baby on the way when we moved, so what a joy it was to finally have a home of our own—a modest, sky-blue ranch situated on a fallow, bare acre with a quiet dirt road out front. Did I say "bare acre"? Yes! Place a landscaper wanna-be on a plot of dirt one-acre square, and you have one happy camper! (I was contented for decades.)
But as I said before, I didn't want to plant "just any old thing" ...
James and I wanted to remember our mystery planting lady from the shack, so we gingerly transported some of the little grape hyacinths and wooly violets to our new, bare yard. In addition, we brought over some tiny Eastern Red Cedars that used to pop up everywhere in the secret garden. We even dug some of those cedars that James had been mowing over for two years before he realized that the matted thick carpet in that area of our rental yard was actually TREES. Those little buzzed trees started out flat as a rug but soon figured out how to grow upward in spirals once we transplanted them to our new property.
My very next priority as a new homeowner was to get four o' clock seeds at the hardware store to recreate the experience of summers long ago with my big sister Dorie who grew them along her curved sidewalk in Crisfield. After the first year of sowing my treasured four o' clocks from seeds, I was delighted to find that they had "perennialized" themselves, shooting up thick, strong stems from the ground each year in the same spot. Four o' clocks forever. For Dorie.
Finally, most of my houseplants today are the types that Pat grew in her Eastern shore home those long years ago at the edge of the wood. Several years ago, I had heard from my sister that Pat had passed away. So to this day, whenever I give one of my houseplants away, I always replace it if it is one of "Pat's."
It is now twenty–three years since James and I built our blue house. As I look out over my property today, I can't help remembering Dorie, Pat, and the mysterious planting lady of the secret garden. Each lovely woman who played an important part in shaping my passion for gardening is represented by specimens that grace my home and landscape and that bring back good memories of happy times in my life.