Friday, August 01, 2008

Sandy's Garden

Summer is obviously here, because I not only have mosquito bites covering my arms and legs, but I also break a large sweat just from walking from my front door to get the morning paper. I’ll admit, it’s not my favorite time of year, but one good thing about it, (besides snow cones and pool parties), is that all across Vermilion Parish, people are enjoying their outdoor space.

A few months ago, I threw together what I thought could be considered a garden by planting some flower seeds, hanging a few ferns, and asking my brothers and sisters to chip in for a cypress swing. I’d spent most of my childhood in that backyard and decided it was time I reconnected with it. I wanted to create a place where I could read, or my mother and I could sit and watch the cows and horses graze in the pasture behind our house.

Our yard is wide open, and so I decided to build a fence to make it feel a little more private. When I buried the last post, my mother walked up to me and asked what I was doing.

“I’m making a garden for us,” I said. “I think it would be nice for us to sit out here sometimes and talk.”

“Thanks,” she said. “You know it’s going to be harder to mow now.”

I convinced my mother to let me build it anyway by telling her that I’d name it Julia’s Garden, and promising that I would push mow. Over the past couple of months, we’ve spent many good times sitting out there and talking about everything from whose getting married to how much money my mother made by selling aluminum cans she’d collected.

The other evening, we sat down in the section of the garden near the wooden fence I built. On one of the post, I hung a sign that had Café Julia written on it in blue and green paint. I sat on a bench, and she sat down on a cast-iron chair and told me a story about my father, which brought tears to my eyes and reminded me of how much I missed him.

“You know, Son,” my mother said. “I’m really glad you put these chairs here. It’s nice out this time of day.”

Then she looked around the yard and back at me, and said, “Just don’t plant anything else or you might have to pass the weed eater too.”

My mother was right about that one, and I’ve discovered that the gardening part of the garden is a lot harder to keep up than I’d realized. I’ve made many mistakes, but am eager to learn. So for the next few weeks, I’ve decided to seek out faithful and committed gardeners who are willing to share their advice. I’ll be visiting different types of outdoor space, and many of them won’t grow a single vegetable but will provide us with food for thought.

This week I’m visiting the home of my beautiful sister, Sandra Richard. I chose her because not only does she have one of the most natural and mysterious gardens I’ve seen, but she’s complained to me for the past thirty three years that when I was five, I broke her wedding china, and so I figured if I wrote an article about her we’d be even.

When I walked into her house to interview her, I saw an aluminum can poking out of the top of a trash bag. I took it out and then dug for others to bring to my mother.

“Oh, goodness,” Sandy said. “You and Momma have a problem.”

I told her that we’d made $12.50 in the last month but she didn’t seem impressed. Instead she told me that I should put the money towards therapy.

“Where do you go for yours?” I asked.

She brought me out to her backyard and turned around and said, “Here.”

In the center of Sandy’s garden stands a tall and mighty oak, whose limbs allow a shadowy draping of Spanish moss. A wooden fence, lined with hibiscus and rose bushes, surrounds the yard to create a sense of intimacy. Beyond the pickets of the fence is a fully-grown forest complete with cypress trees, which protects the space and makes its visitors feel closer to nature.

Sandy and I sat down at a table out in the garden, where I looked at the list of questions I’d prepared for her. I realized that I’d never interviewed someone who’d given me bottles and changed my dirty diapers, and wondered if I was being too formal. I wasn’t sure what story I was looking for, though. I knew I wanted to know more than just the technical elements of gardening, but I didn’t know where to start. So I just read the first question off of my list.

“What’s your favorite plant and why?” I asked.

“Hibiscus,” she said. “Because each one is unique and there are so many different varieties.”

I asked Sandy for a piece of advice when taking care of hibiscus. She said that a gentleman named Red Bernard had taught her to pour one gallon of water mixed with a tablespoon of Epson salt around the roots of the plant once a week.

“It makes the colors of the flower more vibrant,” she said.

I barely have time to water my plants as it is, so I doubt seriously that I will ever utilize the technique. However, I could see the positive results from the bright reds and yellows of Sandy’s hibiscus.

It occurred to me that my sister and I not only had different gardens, but different motives for them. I just wanted a place to read and visit with people, and would actually prefer it if someone else planted and watered for me. For Sandy, that is what she enjoys most about her outdoor space.

“Sometimes when I know it’s going to be a long day,” she said. “I get up a little earlier and come out here and work. It relaxes me and allows me to organize my day.”

That’s when I realized what story I wanted to tell. My time in Sandy’s garden made me understand that in a way, people are unique like hibiscus. We have a similar need to get closer to ourselves and understand the world around us, but we all approach it differently. We all have our own version of a garden, and in order to help it grow to its fullest, it’s important we create the right one for who we are, and encourage others to do the same.

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