I once saw a TV show where the heroine was a little girl who owned a potted lemon tree. She fussed over it, talked to it, and even had a specially designed watering can with the tree’s name on it. In my twelve year old mind, I thought she was a pretty cool kid…a real maverick. No dogs and parakeets for her. She had a plant. By golly, I wanted a plant too.
My green thumbed Grandma was tickled pink to learn of my interest. During a summer visit to her home in Indiana, she raided her greenhouse and came up with a pretty button fern, a potted shamrock, two African violets, a peace lily, and a lavender gloxinia to get me started. Sharing the back seat in Dad’s 1968 Chevy Impala with a bunch of houseplants for 1,200 miles was a bit cramped, but it was worth the discomfort once I got my little buddies home.
They soon became an obsession. I borrowed houseplant books from the library and read up on each variety, then propagated, repotted, fertilized until my bedroom was overflowing with pots of lovely flora. From floor to dresser, something leafy occupied every available surface, transforming my teenaged dwelling into a 13x15 Garden of Eden.
However, not everyone welcomed the change.
“Michelle Lynette Close, entering your room is like tiptoeing through a minefield, and I’ve had enough” Mom complained after accidentally knocking over a small, freshly watered fichus. “No more plants!”
Ok, I admit things had gotten a wee bit out of hand, but restricting my creativity to such an extent was like taking away Monet’s oil paints. Thankfully a bigger canvas was just beyond the patio door.
Dad was euphoric when I asked if he needed help with gardening chores. As a little boy, he had to pull weeds when he misbehaved, which created a lifelong loathing of yard work.
I on the other hand, loved it. The aromas of freshly mown grass and black soil were energizing. Each day when I got home from school, I’d throw on old clothes and start working in the yard. Our elderly neighbor Mr. Cart who could never remember my name dubbed me “that strange little Close kid who digs in the dirt”. I was a regular fixture at Petals and Stems, incessantly bugging Bob the Nursery Guy for tips, and freebies. The contents of my meager piggy bank were continually drained on petunias, pansies, snapdragons, alyssum, begonias, caladium bulbs, and anything else that I could cram into my bike basket. Before long my landscaping projects were the talk of our street.
Yet, there remained another frontier to be conquered, the ultimate test of gardeners everywhere. I wanted a vegetable garden.
I figured it would be no sweat, having been reared at Grandma’s knee, the Mohammed Ali of self grown produce. She could casually drop a few seeds into the ground and end up with blockbuster yields capable of feeding a third world country. I’d spent every summer vacation trailing along behind her since I was old enough to walk, helping her weed, prune, and gather some of the ripened harvest. I loved shelling peas, snapping beans, and shucking corn, watching the progression from dirt to dinner table, all the while learning from the best possible teacher.
However growing veggies was a trickier task in West Central Florida due to the sandy nature of the soil. And I was planting late in the season, when the weather was getting hot. Even Grandma tried to talk me into planting in the fall. But stubborn as I was, little things like bad dirt and soaring temperatures weren’t going to deter me. I even cajoled Dad, hater of yard work into helping me clear a small patch out back.
“So what are you planting?” Dad inquired, huffing and puffing as we furiously worked our spades through the sod.
“Green beans” I replied.
“That’s it? No tomatoes, onions, or cucumbers?”
“Yes Daddy, that’s it. I love green beans.”
He stopped mid shovel, and gawked at me, sweat drizzling into his eyes.
“Do you mean to tell me that I’m working myself to death on a Saturday afternoon for a few handfuls of green beans!!?? I don’t even LIKE green beans!!” he roared.
Yikes! You’d think I’d suggested planting cannabis.
Determined to charge ahead in spite of my paternal naysayer, I bought seeds, manure, black dirt and got to work as soon as the ground was ready. It wasn’t long before little heads popped through the soil. As I surveyed my thriving crop, I figured that when we returned from Indiana, the beans would be ready to pick. I couldn’t wait.
The night before we left for Grandma and Grandpa’s house was a typical Florida summer evening. Darkness fell upon the earth like a soft blanket. Twinkling stars were sprinkled across the sky like diamonds, their backdrop further illuminated by intermittent flashes of lightening from a far off thunder storm. Little did I realize as I drifted off to sleep, that Mother Nature’s ebony cloak had lifted, releasing a skulking reincarnation of one of the seven plagues of Egypt into the back yard. A vile uprising of cowpea aphids, fleahoppers, and leaf miners possessing Herculean appetites, brazenly plundered my garden as if it were an all-you-could-eat salad bar.
When I discovered the damage the following morning, the bean plants looked as though the United States Air Force had used them for target practice.
Choking back rising panic, I squeamishly began removing the little creeps one by one. But after smooshing a dozen or so, I realized it was futile. There were hundreds of them, and only one of me.
Just then Dad honked the horn and hollered for me to get the lead out – it was time to leave. At the rate they were going, the critter invasion would polish off what was left of my garden by the next day. Of course asking Dad for a delay in his long anticipated vacation was a total waste of breath, especially given his dislike of green beans.
I had no choice but to abandon my crop to the elements. For an ambitious young gardener, defeat was a bitter pill. Even worse was knowing what waited at the end of our journey…Grandma’s amazing garden, something I could only dream about.
Dread was an alien emotion when it came to visiting Grandma and Grandpa’s old red brick, two story home; my favorite place to be. A kid-friendly place, it was filled with endless old fashioned alcoves and closets to explore. The hardwood floors creaked invitingly beneath my feet, and the staircase landing had flowery cushioned seat within a bay window, perfect for daydreaming. The house smelled of cookies, cloves, noodles, and clean things. There was a squeaky front porch swing, huge maple trees surrounding the grounds, an apple orchard and beautiful rose beds. And Grandma was there, my best friend.
Grandpa was a different story. He did little more than sit around and look grumpy, so quiet it was easy to forget he was in the house. One of Grandma’s lady friends from church didn’t see him parked in his chair and accidentally sat on his lap. The only times I heard his voice were when he thundered at my cousins and I for playing too loud, or he asked for the butter at dinner. Otherwise, he seldom uttered a peep – at least in my presence. If I said hello to him he’d sometimes grunt in response. More often than not he wouldn’t.
Until I made the unconscious blunder of waking him up.
From the time I was small, I talked in my sleep. If someone picked on me at school, I would shout gibberish at the bully from the safety of my bed. Mom once heard me contentedly humming “Puff the Magic Dragon” at 2:00am. Dad laughed so hard after overhearing me bungle the alphabet as I slumbered, that he stubbed his big toe on the bathroom door. And my subconscious ramblings were a bona fide hit at slumber parties. Everyone thought it was funny.
Everyone except Grandpa.
“Are you alright this morning?” he growled.
“Yes why do you ask?”
“Last night you woke me up twice because you were hollering at somebody. I’ll thank you to remember that an old man needs his sleep!”
Friendship with Grandpa seemed a lost cause.
At least I could count on Grandma. She was always glad I was around, and wouldn’t have cared if I woke her up. However she deserved better company than the sullen granddaughter who sat miserably on the back porch steps while she tended to healthy crops; a granddaughter too ashamed to admit how badly her first vegetable garden had failed.
Frustrated and jealous, I stomped into the house and flopped down on the couch, ready to bawl my eyes out.
Grandpa was seated next to me in his easy chair.
Considering our frosty history, what happened next was nothing short of a miracle.
“What’s wrong with you?” he asked in a rusty voice.
“Grandpa, do you know anything about growing green beans?” I demanded.
His eyes opened wide with surprise, and he slowly cleared his throat.
“What do you want to know?”
“My green bean garden at home is being eaten by bugs and worms, and I don’t know what to do to stop them.”
“You have to dust them. Did you do that yet?” Grandpa asked.
I pondered his question for a moment.
“No…I didn’t think cleaning them would help. But if you say so, I will dust them as soon as I get back.”
For a few seconds there was silence.
It started off slow at first - no doubt due to lack of practice, but the dam quickly burst and tears poured down his wrinkled cheeks. I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what was so funny, but I was delighted to see him laugh and joined in the fun. Mom and Grandma peered around the corner, bug-eyed in disbelief.
When he smiled a big toothless grin at me, (his teeth were soaking upstairs), I realized that he wasn’t as grumpy as I’d believed.
“I thought you didn’t like me Grandpa” I confided.
“Shows how much you know” he chuckled, patting my knee.
It was a day of discoveries…and blessings.
The mystery of how to get rid of common critters on future crops was solved, although it was too late to save the current harvest. Oh well. I could always replant in the fall. And if the little buggers returned for a second go at my garden, they were toast. I’d be armed and ready to dust the heck out of them.
Grandma was fond of saying that God worked in mysterious ways. How true . I later learned that Grandpa’s reclusive behavior was a result of severe depression, something he’d battled for decades. After the green bean debacle, I became one of the few who could perk him up. During my frequent visits, he and I would prattle for hours about Farmer’s Almanac predictions, world events, my most recent gardening adventures, and memories of career and family. Grandma said he’d mark off days on the calendar until my next visit. He wasn’t the only one.
Who would’ve thought?
“Grandpa, you look younger every time I see you.” I said on our last visit, as I straddled his footstool and gathered his hands in mine.
“I knew you were coming and told the barber to give me the works. And I asked Grandma to buy me a new shirt” he boasted. “Hey you never did tell me if my idea for getting rid of the moles under your hibiscus bushes worked!”
Before he passed away, he made Grandma promise to look after “his little girl”. I smile through tears as I remember how our unlikely friendship, the most precious of gifts was purchased for the low low price of a small pest riddled green bean garden.
Somehow it seemed a pretty fair deal.
Michelle Close Mills ©