All gardeners have teachers, archetypes. Each gives a little to the next grower down the line, whether by planting an intentional seed or through wind pollination. Fertilized by proximity.
My love of gardening was also inherited, but not just from family members. There were three people who gifted a little of themselves to me, whether they knew it or not. I suspect they did.
I’ve written of Miss Pitts before. She was my proxy grandmother and a person incapable of unkindness. Miss Pitts grew plants as naturally as she loved and grew people. She cared for multiple friends and family members as they entered their final sickness, welcoming them into her home and nurturing them to the end.
And she cared for food, especially when feeding others. Miss Pitts was a master gardener and had the grandmother’s touch for making a meal into so much more than eating.
She grew up and raised her kids in an era when food was special and hard won. That lesson was delivered on every plate every time. From her I learned that food is precious and hard as hell to grow.
You had to walk past her little patch of tomatoes and peppers on your way into her home, a living welcome sign.
She has dementia now, her final sickness. Others are caring for her to the end.
The tomatoes are gone. I’m glad I learned from her when I could.
Lesson: Gardening is care.
Mildon Dauphin is not an engineer by trade but is one in mind and temperament. He is curious, wise, and punishingly practical. He hates waste – of thought, money, or land. I’ve never seen anyone reduce a conversation to its basic elements faster, always seeking efficiencies. He worked at the Port of Panama City until retirement but has always been a farmer.
In his heart, Mr. Dauphin is a farmer.
He is a type of person you don’t see much anymore – a polymath. Mr. Dauphin learned to farm in a time when everyone needed every skill. He could weld black iron when he was 10, to fix the implements. He also became a draftsman, a carpenter, a surveyor, an expert in livestock husbandry, an administrator. A farmer.
His father taught him to plant rows so precisely that the soil gave up every field pea and okra pod it could. Precision mattered because agriculture, like life, offered no guarantees.
As a result of this training, Mr. Dauphin can’t not plant and harvest.
He bought his 20-acre parcel of North Florida pines in 1964 and has cultivated it since. He’s raised cows, goats, chickens, and guineas. He planted a 5-acre u-pick blueberry farm that continues to this day. During the housing boom in the early 2000s he grew several varieties of palm trees to sell to landscaping companies. And he always has a prim, abundant vegetable garden.
Why? That’s a lot of work for a guy with a steady job. I don’t think he even made that much money from his land. Then why?
Because growers have to grow and there are no guarantees.
Some of my favorite conversations are with Mr. Dauphin. At nearly 80 years old, if you walk his property with him he will tell you what every patch is for, what it will grow and produce. He can dictate row lengths, watering schedules and amounts, blueberry yields, fertilizer mixes, all of it. He is the master engineer and chief scientist of the finely tuned machine he has nurtured over a lifetime.
What a classroom.
Lesson: Gardening is science.
My mother is the most universally creative person I know. Everything she touches is more beautiful for it. Had she been born in another time, she would be renown today in some creative field, I promise. As it was, a girl-child of the 1950s with an unsupportive family, she became an extremely proficient executive assistant and mother of four. She has about 27 self-taught hobbies.
She paints landscapes in oils and acrylics, and crafts needlepoint portraits of such detail that, from two feet away, you’d swear they were paintings. She also crochets. And quilts.
She builds massive doll houses stick by stick, does her own finish carpentry around the house, hand-paints Christmas ornaments that surpass Käthe Wohlfahrt, and sews garments. She is currently working on a bank of stained-glass windows for the transoms in her guest room. The windows are her original designs, of course.
And her garden. Of all my mother’s creations, her garden transcends.
It is explosive, profligate. Beauty for beauty’s sake. My mom was a military kid and partly grew up in Asia. She grows hibiscus and Japanese maple and even plumeria, which aren’t supposed to grow where she lives. She is also German (long story) and spent a lot of time in Europe. Bulbs litter the landscape. She lives in Florida, so elephant ears and crepe myrtles and philodendron make an appearance. Something is always, always blooming.
She persuades plants to grow that others can’t. To wit, African violets and orchids (houseplant aficionados will back me up on this). She has a chorus of orchids that sing at her command.
Mom is also a vegetable gardener. In fact, my first living memory of a vegetable garden is when I was six years old and we lived in South Florida. She carved a tiny patch of sand in our back yard and grew corn.
I’m sure there were other plants in the garden, but I remember sitting in our grape fruit tree and thinking the corn was cool. At this point my mother had four kids under the age of six. She had zero free time. Why grow a garden?
I suspect because it was pretty to look at.
Lesson: Gardening is art.
The Joy of Gardening
Gardening is meaningful effort. Not everyone sees it that way, but I do and I’m glad. Glad that these people taught me their inadvertent lessons. They are chapters in my love story with gardening. What joy they have given.