Mom's gardening style

Mom gave her ferns – and children – just the right balance of nurturing and breathing room.

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She is my mother, so I only know some things about her, and not necessarily the ones she would think most important. Her gardening, for example, escaped my notice for several decades. I would have said she wasn't a gardener, but I would have been wrong.

In the prim suburb where we grew up, our sprawling yard always looked disheveled compared with the others. So when, at age 60, my mother moved and told me how excited she was about her new garden – "because you know, I love gardening" – I had my doubts. I couldn't at first remember having seen her do anything in the garden. Ever.

Oh, sometimes she would persuade a reluctant child in need of forgiveness to push the rusty lawn mower around or rake up the leaves. On hot days, if we pleaded, she might drag the sprinkler out and send water arcing over the spiky, yellowing grass that poked at our feet as we ran through the spray.

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As for the garden itself, I remembered only a few things: some orange tiger lilies that came up each spring, azaleas that nearly died during every Massachusetts winter, and the summer that a sulky rosebush suddenly burst forth with a profusion of fragrant, lemon-colored blooms.

When I focused on it, though, memories sprouted. I remembered her piling us into the station wagon, driving to a friend's woods, and asking us to help her dig up any plants that looked good. We thought most of the plants were boring, ground-hugging growths in dull green and brown.

We tried to tell her there were no plants in the woods. But she persevered, and we helped her dig a variety of ferns that now push up their curled heads every spring in the north-facing bed at the back of the house. Other little plants, interspersed with rocks, turned a small slope into a rock garden.

Somehow I hadn't considered those efforts. To me, gardening was about the flowers, strawberries, and fruit trees I'd seen in the garden catalogs and had tried to persuade my mother to buy. Gardening was about putting plants in, watering them, feeding them, trimming them, tying them up, picking their fruit, and clipping their flowers for decoration. Ferns didn't count.

And while my brothers, sisters, and I were growing up, I thought that we, too, were simply following some natural and effortless process. The same few dinners rotated dependably across our weeks, and we were always fed and sent off to school and bed at predictable times.

Our mom wasn't the kind who styled hair, chose our outfits, or kept baby books. She rarely got involved with homework and only glanced at our grades. She wanted us to be free spirits, as long as we didn't use bad language and showed up in time for dinner.

Because she was not a vine-tying, artful pruning, edge-trimming type of mom, in my dramatic teens I thought she was less nurturing than the other moms I knew. But as I reflect on it now, it seems just a difference of style. After all, her fern gardens and rock gardens hadn't just happened; she had collected the plants and chosen where to put them: the sun-loving plants on the south-facing slope with the rocks and the ferns in the shady hollow by the cellar door.

Perhaps I was as wrong about her parenting as I was about the ferns, carefully planted and left to unfurl into their own shape, where the cool, rocky foundation walls would provide them the shelter they needed to thrive.

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