Flowers through the Generations

THE hired man planted the flowers, but my grandmother watered them. Late in the afternoon, when the day was cooling down and the yard was in shadow, she'd stand in front of the house, hose in hand. Moving along the brick wall where the flower beds were, she would stop to give each of her progeny a drink: red valerian, white daisies, pink cosmos, and purple asters.

Sometimes in her eagerness to get moisture to a root or to deadhead a blossom, my grandmother would bend so low that her dress would hike up in back and reveal that, as a concession to the heat, her stockings had been rolled only as far as her knees. Sometimes she bent so low that a stocking would come loose from its garter, and she'd have to stop and roll it up again. It was the only time I thought of her as young.

The hired man planted the flowers, but did grandmother decide where to put them? Did she say to him, I think we'll put the petunias next to the valerian this year? I was the one who picked the flowers, who brought them into the house and fashioned bouquets so lavish and whimsical that my grandmother could not stop singing their praises, or mine. I had a way with flowers, she said.

My mother did not share my grandmother's fondness for flowers. Oh, she liked them all right, but not enough to go to the trouble of planting them. There were no-nonsense red geraniums in front of our house. In California's San Joaquin Valley, they bloomed almost all year long.

Once I was given a packet of seeds to plant among the geraniums. I've forgotten now what kind of seeds they were. Zinnias, perhaps. I had, and still have, an affection for the cheeriness of zinnias. What I remember is the heady sense of anticipation that came over me as I dug my spade into the soil and breathed in its rich peaty aroma.

I had no idea how long it would take the seeds to sprout; I couldn't have been more than 6 or 7 at the time - and whatever amount of time it took, it was too long. For a while, I hurried outside to check the progress of the seeds every morning, but eventually I lost interest. And though I suppose they must have sprouted and, in time, become full-fledged blooms, what I remember most is the bare earth staring me in the face.

Later, as a young wife in the early 1960s with a much larger piece of barren earth - a backyard in one of those vast $99-down housing tracts in northern California's farmland - I took to planting flowers again.

What did I plant? The same things my grandmother did: cosmos, asters, zinnias, petunias; daffodils, and tulips for the spring. My eldest daughter Chris helped me. She was 2 at the time. I have a picture of her standing on the grass, clad in nothing but a pair of underpants, reaching out to pick an aster.

We lived in that house for five years. Too long, as far as I was concerned. It was the garden - planning it, planting it, and caring for it - that got me through.

After that, there was a series of rented houses in Los Angeles, Boston, Washington, D.C., and Chicago. Busy moving up in the world, we didn't stay in any of them long. There didn't seem to be much point in planting a garden.

But in the mid 1970s we were in northern California again, this time intent on staying a while. The house we bought was in a San Francisco suburb. Its back was made almost entirely of glass, and it looked out on a sea of oaks.

A series of decks cantilevered out into the oaks, and in the late afternoon the light on those decks took on the same dreamy diffusiveness it has in Impressionist paintings. I couldn't wait to

start planting flowers.

Never mind that I had to plant them in pots. There are a lot of ways to make a garden.

I bought the largest containers I could find. In winter, they were filled with cyclamen and primroses. In summer, they held cosmos, delphinium, shasta daisies, and deepest-blue lobelia, all mixed together like an oversized English bouquet. I never knew anyone not to exclaim in wonder over the beauty of those flower-strewn decks.

The early `80s found us on the move again. The house we rented in Washington's Georgetown was utterly charming and, compared to our California house, tiny. As was its garden, which was mostly taken up by brick paving and a high boxwood hedge. I planted a few impatiens under the box and turned my attention to other things.

Two years later, we moved again. This time, home was an apartment 24 stories high in the sky, with a spectacular view of New York's East River. I bought a telescope and took up boat-watching. I guess you could say the river became my garden.

But when my husband and I traveled to Europe, as we increasingly did, it was the gardens rather than the art and architecture that became the focus of our trips. Kiffsgate, Hidcote, Sissinghurst, the park at Blenheim, and the gardens of the Loire Valley chateaux - we visited them all. We'd come back loaded down with garden books and ideas. Oh, so many ideas.

Last summer, we were ready to put those ideas into practice. We'd built a house on the outskirts of a village in northwestern Connecticut. Ten acres: five meadow, five woods, a stream, and lovely old rock walls.

On Memorial Day weekend, Chris came up from her apartment in Greenwich Village to help us plant. The plot I had selected was a large one. Two hundred fifty feet long, it fronted the lawn and backed up to a hedgerow.

The long gravel driveway leading to the house looked like a garden center. Lilies, irises, peonies, hydrangeas, phlox, delphinium, foxglove, rose bushes - you name it, we had it - all

stood about in containers waiting to be planted.

We worked through the entire weekend, Chris and I, rising at dawn and quitting only when it got too dark to see.

By Memorial Day afternoon, everything was in place with the exception of one rose bush: a Buff Beauty. It's a particularly lovely specimen, prized for its creamy yellow petals.

Chris and I stood at the foot of the garden, trying to find an empty spot.

``There.'' Chris pointed to a place over by the hydrangeas.

``Too shady,'' I said.

``There.'' Chris pointed to another spot, but there was something wrong with that, too.

``Wait, I see it,'' Chris said. She strode rapidly across the lawn and planted herself in the center of a clump of iris.

``Gosh, I don't know, it says here,'' - I consulted the rose book in my hand - ``that it gets to be 5 feet tall.''

Chris is nearly 6 feet. She struck her arm out level with her shoulder and curved it gently, as if embracing something precious. Cocking her head to one side, she shot me her widest and most engaging grin. ``Mom, I'm a Buff Beauty,'' she said.

I thought of her when she was just 2, reaching out to pick the aster. I thought of my grandmother.

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