Posted May 6, 2011 by jimhigley
With five boys and a yard that usually looked more like a school playground, her minimal gardening efforts probably made a lot of sense. Boys and gardens don’t mix. Throughout the course of a typical summer day, our yard would be home to baseball games, Frisbee throwing, makeshift driving ranges, go-cart riding, and squirt gun fights—including not only the five Higley boys but also a broad mix of neighborhood kids.So, my mom was wise not to let any gardening interests compete with an army of boys and the arsenal of balls and toys that came with them.That changed, however, one fateful September Saturday.
My mom had gone to visit an elderly lady from our church, leaving the five of us at home to enjoy a modified version of two-on-two basketball. (That meant my four older brothers were playing against each other while I ran around the court pretending to contribute to the game.)
After a couple of hours, we started wondering when our mom would be home. It wasn’t that we really missed her, mind you. The real reason was she had promised to make her weekly quadruple batch of chocolate chip cookies for us upon her return. When my mom baked cookies, she did so at “army-levels”—which meant plenty of bowls and spoons for all five of us to lick. Thus, by the time she pulled into the driveway in her wood-paneled, light-blue Ford station wagon, we were already savoring the thought of her creamy cookie dough.“
I have a surprise!” she blurted out.
Surprises from my mom almost always meant food. But she had already committed to baking cookies before she left, so this one stumped us. Had she gone to the grocery store and bought us each a package of our favorite type of cookie? That was a ploy she would use sometimes when she didn’t have the time or energy to bake.
“We give. What’s the surprise?”
“Follow me,” she said as she walked to the back of the car and opened the rear door.
We all peered in and saw her surprise.
Three or four short brown boxes, each holding what looked to be plants. But they weren’t in pots. They were, well, kind of dug up, with clumps of dirt around the roots.
That was the surprise? Our mom brought home boxes of green weeds?
“They’re mums!” exclaimed our way-too-excited mom. “My friend dug up some of her yellow mums, and she said this is a perfect time of year to plant them!
“Here’s what we’re going to do,” she started to explain. “I think we’ll pull up the grass in the area between the sidewalk and the house. We’ll plant the mums there—in front of the bushes. And then, early next summer, we’ll plant some other bright flower in among the mums. We’ll have fun—and it’s going to be beautiful!
”She was on a roll. She had a vision. A mission.
And she kept using the word “we.”
“Should we get started?”
My mom rarely asked for help. And when she did, she got it. No questions. Within minutes we were all in front of our house, taking directions from her. We had become garden boys.
The area she chose was a semicircular space—about twenty feet long and six feet wide. It was the space between the curvy front sidewalk and our house. Since the day my parents had built the house six years earlier, this area always had grass—with a few bushes up against the house.
My older brothers’ job was to remove the grass. It was fascinating for me to see how they could take a shovel and peel the grass back, revealing the roots lying underneath the surface. We tossed all of the pieces of grass into a few fifty-gallon cardboard barrels my dad brought out from the garage. And in about fifteen minutes, what once had been a grassy patch was nothing but dark, smooth Nebraska dirt.
Next my mom carefully laid out the contents of her boxes—thinking through the spacing of the dozen or so plants. I refer to them as “plants,” but by this time they were mostly limp and looking more like candidates for the fifty-gallon cardboard barrels. But my mom saw past all of that. And after she planted and watered the last of her new treasures, she stood back, smiled, and said, “Next year, this will look great!”
If only she knew.
The following spring, after a long, cold, snowy winter, the mums started to show signs of life. A little worse for the wear, they obediently sprouted an abundance of new leaves and buds on a daily basis.
As planned, during the Memorial Day weekend my mom planted the balance of the flowers in her garden. White alyssum—a low ground cover—lined the front while red geraniums found their home in front of the yellow mums. It all looked a little sparse. But my mom didn’t mind.
She loved her garden. She’d water it. She’d weed it. The garden was on the south side of our house, so it soaked in the sun. It was also next to our driveway, however, and unfortunately received its share of out-of-bounds basketballs.But the garden—especially the mums—flourished. My mom was right. It did turn into a thing of beauty. And Mom soon became known as the lady with the big yellow mums.
The second year, her mums continued their exponential growth.
And by the third season, the mums were about as big as the bushes behind them. My mom’s enthusiasm, on the other hand, was getting tempered. The mums were not only huge; they were woody and taking on a life of their own. And while she tried her best to trim them back, they only seemed to come back stronger and bigger each year.They had become the primary resident in what had become her garden from hell.Until, that is, my mom was talking to a friend about her out-of-control situation and learned a secret.“We need to split our mums!” she announced.
Splitting mums—thinning them out—was a fundamental practice learned in Gardening 101. The only problem was my mom had never taken that course. She never knew.
Out came the shovel.
A vision of a guillotine went through my head as I watched my mom work her way down the row of mums, digging part of them out, thinning them away from the plants that remained.She had been given the key to unlock the mystery of a happy garden—and gardener. And it worked.
From that day forward, the front garden once again became something my mom enjoyed. It was no longer overwhelming to her. She was in the driver’s seat. Because she knew when to split her mums.
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