Peter Brown’s The Curious Garden took me right back to my own first experiences with soil and seeds. My father is the gardener in our family. He is also a jock—quarterback on his high school football team, captain of the basketball team—with some pretty strongly held opinions on what’s manly and what’s not. So, as I look back, it’s pretty great that he was the one who taught my brother and me how to garden. Chip and I were probably four and eight (I’m older) when my father helped us plant seeds for the first time. It was the first full summer we spent at our new house on Lakeside Drive in Kalamazoo, Mich., and there were two symmetrical flower beds, each maybe 3' x 10' at the bottom of a steep hill (great for sledding in the winter), with a walkway between them. Dad gave Chip and me each a small section, and showed us how to plant the seeds a few inches apart, and how deep to press them into the earth. Each day, Chip and I would check on our seeds’ progress, and Dad coached us to be patient.
As a child, there is nothing quite like witnessing a seed that you’ve planted, with care and watering, growing into a flower or vegetable. It was one of the high points of teaching my second-grade science classes--that morning when the students filed in, went straight to the seeds they had carefully placed about an inch deep in the soil of a clear plastic cup (so they could watch the roots spread), and observed a furtive green tendril breaking the soil’s surface. Even though it’s one of the golden laws of nature, it can still feel like a miracle.
I don’t remember the specifics of the flowers my brother and I planted that summer as much as I remember Dad letting us into this secret world, showing us how he spent his hours weeding and watering and tending the garden. Ever after, I had newfound respect for his dedication: pruning the lilac trees outside my parents’ bedroom window, clipping the pine hedges by the front door, and cultivating the irises and lilies in the flower beds. Today, about all I can manage are three window boxes and three planters on our terrace in New York City. I have some yellow pansies and snapdragons, purple petunias, silver dust (leafy plants), and some dianthus (pictured at left) that are supposed to be annuals but are so deeply rooted in one of my planters that they’ve become perennials--with no thanks to me.
Recently, while strolling with my friend Cary past the beautifully maintained community garden that runs south from 96th Street in Manhattan’s Riverside Park, I started pointing out the impressive array of flowers the gardeners had cultivated. She asked me how I knew the names of so many of them. “My father,” I said. “He’s the gardener in our family.” I realized that he’d given me entry not only into this secret world of his, but its language, too.