The frost is still sparkling on the ground and rooftops as Oscar, our occasional gardener, pulls up in his 1992 beige Volkswagen. I hear the van chugging to a stop and I sigh in relief. He's arrived. I say "occasional" because he is a no-show more often than not, which is not unusual here in Chile, where gardeners tend to be as unpredictable as spring weather.
I put up with his unreliable ways because I like him. He and I are botanical soul mates.
Clad in baggy khaki pants, blue flannel shirt, and baseball cap, he slides open the van's side door. He's brought me a present, un regalo, he says, pulling out a rectangular plastic flowerpot planted with a variety of herbs. He introduces them: mint, cilantro, thyme, oregano, dwarf celery.
Surprised and pleased, I thank him, though I suspect it's his way of apologizing for his absence. Yet I feel validated in my opinion of him.
Today we need to prune the bougainvillea, I tell him. And the lemon tree needs shaping, he adds. We discuss which branches are to be pruned to allow more sunlight to play through. He points to the leggy branches on the avocado tree, sentencing them to the saw.
Problems had kept him away, he told me. I called him after trying another gardener, but we didn't share the affinity I felt with Oscar. He pokes at the dichondra under its thin winter covering of moist soil (to protect it from the frost, he'd advised) and declares it's looking good. Just wait until spring, he says. The garden will be beautiful.
Oscar clops about in his thick work boots, leaving a trail of mud clods along the edge of the patio. He checks the Japanese maple for buds. He put this garden in for me last spring and takes an interest in how everything is faring. Planning and planting it was our mutual labor of love.
High up on the ladder, he wrestles with the thorny bougainvillea, snips away, and tosses the branches down to the ground. We chat. I ask him about insect-repelling plants and ones that will attract ladybugs. I'd like to put in some forget-me-nots and baby violets, I tell him. He offers to bring me some two-toned primulas. He runs a small nursery and brings me plants he knows I'll like – such as the California poppies he put in the front yard and the black-eyed Susans trailing on the back wall.
I pull weeds, and bring him coffee (three teaspoons of sugar) and some wire to tie up bundles of larger branches.
Oscar is not a big man, but he's strong and fit. I watch him break up the branches with his rough hands, dirt caked underneath his nails. Several scratches prompt me to ask him why he doesn't wear gloves. He works better with his bare hands, he tells me. I empathize, being a no-glove gardener myself. The sense of touch guides me as I pinch back dead flowers and work the wily roots of a transplant into the soil.
As he's about to leave, I ask him if he's solved some of his problems now. Will he be able to do my garden regularly? His face takes on a concerned expression. The van is his main worry. It's dying a slow death. He's been looking for months for a van in good condition within his budget and plans to check one out this afternoon. And now he's found a reliable person to run his little nursery while he's out doing gardens and buying plants. Sí, señora, he says, I'll be back in 15 days.
Oscar, I tell him, por favor, if something comes up and you can't make it, just call me. I remind him how difficult it is to get hold of him. I point to his cellphone lying next to my aloe vera. He shrugs. Sometimes he brings it along in case his wife needs to contact him, but he's always losing it.
Oscar lurches off in the van and I look about my garden with satisfaction. He has coaxed the beauty out from under winter's ravages. Soon spring will tiptoe in to round out Oscar's magic.