I first saw this fellow clinging to a confederate jasmine tendril, then seeming to slowly fall, wing over wing, into a nearby patch of grass. He looked a little frail, as though he had traveled a long way to be able to die close to heaven. Perhaps he was only inebriated. Lord knows the fragrance of those jasmine almost make me go tilt.
But what a way to go.
The little pool house is a wonderfully utilitarian structure. It was designed to protect our delicate aging skin from sun exposure — a big deal since Buck’s dermatologist offered to put in a drive-through window just for him to get treatments on the fly. As a teenager, he was a lifeguard on Pensacola Beach and Baby Oil broiling was all the rage. The little pool has a heater, too, for shoulder season swimming. It’s a short walk from the main house down a sloping sidewalk, and all these years it has stood alone, spartan, with no softening of shrubs or flowers.
Not anymore. The gardenia was first. Now it has the company of a glorious Confederate jasmine, sometimes called a “fence eater” because of its talent for covering up an ugly chain link fence quickly. It is medium-sized now, but tendrils have already taken hold of the fence and are racing in all directions to cover the chain link.
The Asiatic Jasmine groundcover, hanging ferns and bougainvillea under the stairs by the sidewalk leading to the little pool hint of possibility. Buck agrees, and is going to help me make a plant bed around two sides of the enclosed lap pool.
So already, with these baby steps, I’m enticed to the pool several times a day. And in the evening, I walk down the sidewalk and stand between the gardenia and jasmine, taking in their sweet fragrance, inhaling deeply, focusing my mind. This possibility was here all the time, but I never saw it until we almost sold the house and then didn’t.
Years ago, I bought a few hostas and planted them out by one of the big old oak trees on the east side of the house. Then I forgot about them. Then Buck weed whacked them (not knowing). Then they came back, as survivors do, again and again. So about three years ago I finally noticed and moved them to the safety of the bed in front of the house that I was just at that time creating (the one which became home to the blanket flower and other miscellaneous urges of a person with a gardening itch who doesn’t know how to properly scratch it). The hostas didn’t precisely thrive there, but they survived, never got weed whacked again and the little colony grew.
Now they’ve been moved from that too sunny for them spot to the breezeway garden, along with a hydrangea who has also suffered from too much Gulf coast sun. The poor hydrangea managed to survive sun, winter and a pruner (me) who doesn’t know how or when to prune. The jury is out as to whether it will ever bloom again, but at least now, ensconced in its new spot in dappled light and shade, it has grown full and leafy and if a plant can look relieved, this one does.
I’ve killed a lot of sentences in my time and quite a few plants, too, sad to say. I pursue beauty and truth in fits and starts, and my highway of good intentions is littered with wounded innocents. I have a pretty tough little hosta colony now and a half-written novel. I’m gonna keep on gnawing that bone, no matter how many times I have to bury it, unearth it and gnaw it some more.
Part of the border garden we’re making is an existing bed that’s been home in the past to mostly annuals, a few perennials and some years an herb garden. In assessing what fits well with the new design and what might be happier in a space in a shady breezeway on the east side of the house, one thing is clear: the blanket flower stays. Gaillardia is such a happy camper and as long as I deadhead rigorously, it blooms like crazy from early spring into winter. I love its sturdiness and its singular focus on blooming. Where it sits is a spot the landscaper assigned to one of the Nana Globosa Cryptomerias. Not gonna happen. I wouldn’t dare move this plant from what is clearly its happy place. Sometimes we marry someone who already has a family. Clearly, those kids (or mothers-in-law) aren’t going to be excised from your beloved’s life. We build our new life together around them, including and celebrating. And our lives, like the new garden with the pre-existing, sprawling blanket flower, may be both messier and much more beautiful.
The genesis for creating a true border garden in front of the house was when we had our home listed for sale for a short while between October of 2016 through March of this year. While we didn’t have enough prospective buyers to get much feedback, one person’s comment struck a chord: “I expected to see some shrubs and flowers out front.”
I realized we needed help to create a nice look that also fit in with our location in the middle of a forest! It had me flummoxed for awhile. I’ve never hired any sort of professional for a landscaping or gardening project and was intimidated by the idea. Finally, I contacted a local nursery — Floral Tree Gardens — that’s been here since before the dawn of time, a good family-run operation, and explained my dilemma. Wonder of wonders, they didn’t seem to think it strange at all, and shortly I had an appointment with Tena, a member of their family to come out, take a look, and make us a drawing.
This little piece of paper turned into a tremendous help, even though Buck and I didn’t follow all of her recommendations, and opted to do the work ourselves. For example, we wound up with four globosa nana cryptomeria (Tena inadvertently called them arborvitae), but no lorepetalums. More on that later.
Bottom line: Inexpensive help is available. Being intimidated by the process (as I was for years) was unfortunate. Now I feel totally comfortable going to the nursery, snagging a golf cart and browsing the acres of wonderful plants. It doesn’t matter whether I come away with four shrubs or two flax lilies or simply some fresh ideas, snapped with my trusty phone camera; the folks are friendly and helpful.
My earliest gardening memory involves harvesting rather than planting. “Harvesting” — now there’s a euphemism. Mother probably thought of it as vandalism, an activity worthy of making a kid cut their own switch if not outright damnation to eternal hell. We lived in central Florida, a small town called Brandon. I liked to sneak out of my bedroom window during those ridiculous nap-times imposed on growing children by 1950’s era parents and slip around to the side of the house to purloin Mother’s hibiscus flowers. I would sit cross-legged, happily sucking nectar from the backs of those gorgeous, velvet-petaled flowers. I maintain to this day that lots of strong black coffee and hibiscus nectar make up for whatever lack of sleep is incurred while adventuring.
Transfixed, I watched Buck move dirt around in the bed we created between house and portico. He flipped the square shovel over and used its flat blade to smooth the surface with long steady strokes. “I don’t know much about growing flowers,” he said, “but I do know how to work soil.”
We’ve been so busy the past 35-plus years that I’d forgotten he farmed in what we call his “previous” life, a life where he worked hard as a corporate public affairs executive by day, and farmed soybeans in the evening and weekends — partly to try and make a little extra money for his growing family — and partly to provide an experience for his teenage boys. An ancient 60 horsepower Case tractor sits out by the red storage building still, a functioning relic of those earlier times.
I had nearly forgotten that in my own “previous” life, lived mostly in Tallahassee, Florida with my young, pleasant, distant first husband, I had a thriving rose garden, grew tomatoes, and even briefly considered taking an entrepreneurial leap to lease one of the closed old-fashioned gas stations in town and turn it into a funky plant store.
But a second-bite-of-the-apple romance, a true love at first sight lightning strike, hit Buck and me in the same nanosecond we laid eyes on each other. Thoughts of gardening or farming or practically anything else but the hot immediate presence of each other flew away.
All these years later, it’s still like that. He will turn 80 in December; I’ll be 66 in June. Thanks to Buck and his first wife — who remarried a month before we did, and passed away ten years ago — I have a family of grown children, with seven grandchildren and three great-grands. We’ve traveled, had several careers between us, and retired twenty years ago. We live in splendid semi-isolation in a ninety-acre longleaf pine preserve in Florida’s panhandle, the Gulf coast, and almost daily walk the soft, interconnected fire line roads with our young chocolate lab, Lou.
And now, together, we’re making a flower garden out front, and trusting the deer won’t eat it all up.
Except for a small Emerald Gem Arbovitae in front of the fireplace, you can’t see any plants besides grass. There are a few annuals in a bed under the windows (between the a/c compressor and the front door), but that’s it. The house is in a clearing surrounded by a mixed hardwood and Longleaf pine forest. The story of how this wonderful home in the woods of Panhandle Florida, near Pensacola, came to be, is at the blog I call my memoir on the fly, Longleaf Stories. This photo was taken in early September of 2016.