Gardens and old people are a happy pair in my mind because my grandmother was the first gardener I ever knew. Walking with her through a botanical garden when I was a child, however, was an exercise in patience. She named everything, read every little stake or tag. Alyssum, dianthus, coreopsis, she’d murmur, every once in a while throwing me some English. “Heuchera. Otherwise known as coral bells.” Panicked, I would look ahead, scanning the endless pebbled paths, desperate to calculate our rate of progress. It could feel like being trapped in a maze with a person less interested in escape than in the topiary.
Now that my grandmother’s gone, I wish those paths had been endless. And I wish I’d paid more attention. So when we bought a house a few years ago and decided to start a garden, I listened to Earl, my nonagenarian neighbor, when he told me what it would need.
The way Earl pronounced “July” it sounded vaguely illicit, and he often talked of Fourth of July picnics circa 1925, when a fuss used to be made over having ripe tomatoes in time. To accomplish the feat the old-fashioned way—before the age of supermarkets offering everything ripe all the time—he explained to me that you had to start the seeds inside. Looking at his garden, where he’d trained a series of pale antique roses over an arbor, I knew he was an authority. He was also thin and bent, almost lost, it seemed, in his baggy beige pants held up by suspenders. His chest was concave and he could talk quite a long time in the sun, his mouth growing drier and drier, white spittle appearing in the corners. I could get discouraged about aging, standing and listening to Earl in the sun, but then he’d do something like pop a cherry tomato into my daughter’s mouth for an impromptu snack, or snap off a daylily bud and crunch it in his own mouth—he made salads of them—and I’d feel better again.
Soon Earl was coaching me on hydrangeas and camellias and crape myrtles, all southern plants I didn’t know what to do with. He planted a red bud tree in our yard and trimmed a Virginia creeper (sounds like a local undergraduate, but it’s an invasive vine) out of our front hedge. When we had some landscaping done, he applauded, even though he did all his own gardening. He was just happy, he said, to see someone taking an interest in the street, which had declined over the past decade as absentee landlords rented many of the houses to students. In the summer, he would leave little bouquets of roses in cut-off milk cartons on our front porch. The tomatoes came in paper grocery bags so wrinkled from reuse they felt soft.
Then came a period, two summers ago, when an ambulance seemed to take Earl away several times a week in the middle of the night, and that autumn he decided to leave the basement apartment in the house he’d built (his daughter lived above him) and move to an assisted-living facility in Richmond. Neighbors threw him a going-away party. We all brought bouquets or plants and took turns sitting next to him, listening to his stories until the next person came and we could get up and get something to eat.
When I go out to my driveway, I see Earl’s rose arbor, the last bit of the garden he was able to maintain before he left. Last year I watched those roses come into bud, bloom, and fade, and they did not make me happy. I missed Earl, out with his clippers, even though there were times when he lived here that I feigned busyness in order to avoid the inevitable story. Once I even ducked under my desk when I saw him coming up the walk with a milk carton of roses. Indefensible. I can only say that the bouquets were frequent and the stories attending them, lengthy.
I wonder why his daughter doesn’t tend her father’s roses. No one on the street knows her well. She’s reclusive and, in middle age, round as a bulb, as distant as her father was sociable. I don’t know if she was always this way. I remember my own inertia the last fall my grandmother was alive. She wanted me to plant dozens of tulips for her in a bed at the end of her garden, but it turns out it’s hard and sad to plan someone else’s resurrection. I’ve considered tending the roses myself, but given the “No Trespassing” sign Earl’s daughter erected at the front of the driveway, that seems like a bad idea; I think she’s worried about students using the extra-wide driveway for parking now that her father’s car is gone.
I’m doing this Earl’s way and we’ll see what happens.So, preparing to face another summer across the street from Earl’s abandoned arbor, I’ve come up with a plan for a tribute. I know my gardening limitations—it would be foolish to attempt roses in his honor. The Fourth of July tomato, however, I think I can manage, and a few weeks ago I looked up the Burpee catalog online to order seeds. I thought my plan of producing a red tomato by the Fourth lovely and quaint. No one would have heard of it, I was sure. I imagined myself talking in the sun, telling my friends stories of Earl and his long-ago picnics.
Then I saw a photograph of some very shiny, very red tomatoes sitting on an American flag. “Tomato Fourth of July Hybrid,” bragged the copy. “Customer Favorite. Be the first on your block to have vine-ripened, red, luscious tomatoes by the Fourth of July!”
I stared at that artfully arranged flag for a while, so red, white, and blue. Eventually I ordered three other varieties: a plain tomato with the unfortunate name Steak Sandwich; a cherry tomato called Sugar Snack Hybrid; and something called the Patio Princess because I know the name will make my daughter happy (and to associate “princess” with a vegetable instead of yards and yards of dress-up tulle would be a positive development). I’m doing this Earl’s way and we’ll see what happens.