(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on August 22, 2007. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to respond to your questions.)
The first time ever I saw your face
I thought the sun rose in your eyes
The first flowers or plants I encountered as a child had a profound effect on my later gardening attempts. Raised in a large New York City apartment, I shared a room with my older sister and although it was spacious enough for four kids I had to mind the boundaries. There was her side and my side and the big double window which belonged to my mother's plants. All the windows, in every room, belonged to my mother and her plants. Snake plants, aloe, jade, mint, dieffenbachia, spider plants, succulents, Wandering Jew, and coleus to name a few. Most of them grew tall and green and seemed to clone themselves off the head or side of itself without benefit of vine or stem. Almost all, except the coleus. Its leaves grew off of stems and as a child this made more sense to me as it fit a little closer to the idea I had of flowers and what I had learned in school of stamens, sepals and pistils. A most common variety of tricolor white, pink and purple on a backdrop of jadeite green, its scalloped oak leaves, veined and velvety, had more character, color and variation than everything else in the window. Although I cringed then whenever my mother pinched back the tiny flowers as they appeared, its blooms would not have made it anymore attractive and she said this was a merciful necessity.
The coleus were always in a hanging basket above the others and always, always, there were some on the kitchen windowsill. Long tendrils of roots growing neglected in the murky green soup of a mayonnaise jar. It was like a middle child. Amidst all the others it would survive with a minimum of care and would hang upside down and sideways trying to capture attention, not aware that it was already at center stage in my mother's windows.
Other than the occasional roses my father bought for my mother, I had to go to summer camp to have my first real encounter with flowers growing outdoors in their glory. The daily exercise was round up tag and we hid until found and then joined the finder in the pursuit to tag others. Hiding behind a tall shrub, I stretched out on the grass to wait and found myself nose down in a patch of tiny blue florets. I was enchanted. So small and delicate, they seemed to disintegrate when I tried to pick them. Deciding to be content with just looking, I spent a considerable amount of time searching for them in the wide open field and that is where they found me when the game was over and the dinner bell had rung. I was told they were “bluettes.”
The following year, in my fifth grade class, we were to grow flowers for Mother's Day gifts. Supplied with seed, I secretly took one of my mother's ceramic pots and brought it to school in anticipation of bringing her back a bouquet of orange marigolds. My first seedlings delighted me to no end as I watered and tended them till they leafed and flowered and were ready to go home. When I presented them to her and she saw what I had done, she gave up a small space at a window where I could continue to fret over them and she would smile, for they never really became hers.
My first year of college and my first apartment are synonymous in memory with my first “garden”. My New York City studio boasted windows all along one of its walls of which there were only three not counting the entrance door. My priorities were not whether or not the bed would fit, but the amount of sun; morning or afternoon, and could I have permission to drill holes in the ceiling for my hanging coleus (cuttings from my mother) which went with me where ever I lived. My privacy curtains were hanging baskets and tall plants and trees; a long meandering philodendron was my valance. One of the trees I had actually lugged home on the subway across three boroughs; a six foot tall ficus that I had to have no matter what. No matter the stares and inquiring looks of the other passengers, no matter the trail of leaves I left behind me, no matter the money spent on a cab to get it to my building and no matter the “tip” I gave the cab driver to help get it up five flights of stairs. My window wall of greenery would not have been complete without it and to me, it was worth the trouble.
It would be years later, after many apartment plants, apartment trees, bottle gardens, terrariums under glass, aquariums without fish, bathroom vines, windowsill cuttings, desert landscapes in dishes, pot hangers hung with coleus baskets, and wine racks laid down with bottles for cuttings that never knew soil, that I would acquire a house with a yard that would set me on the path to becoming an outdoor gardener.
In my newly purchased, bare, open expanse of lawn, I exhaled. No more plants, now was the time for real flowers. I envisioned a lush densely grown forest of colorful wildflowers. Blooming flowers, flowers with fragrance, flowers by moonlight, flowers to put a New York florist to shame. I thought the sky was the limit as I browsed through catalogues and although it was laid out perfectly in my mind, I had no idea where to begin and so I learned to mow until the day I would have such a riot of perennials that this would be unnecessary. I did not know then that my vision would take years and much trial and error or that it would even take another direction, but in the meantime I hung my coleus outdoors and stood on the path of creating a flower garden. And that is another story.