Tag Archives: gardening

The Long Growth: There to Here; Green to Gold

“I looked it up–we need to get a male and a female,” Richard said as we stood over the muscadine vines at Cofer’s. I picked up a gallon size bucket with a thin green vine growing inside. I held it up above my head and looked at the bottom. “This one must be female.” I picked up another container. “Shoot, this one must be too…nothing dangling under here!”

He shook his head and smiled at my silliness. “Seriously, how do you tell the difference?”

He stretched out the narrow white label that was tied around the base of the vine. “Here we go–this one has an M. Look for an F.”

We paid a lot of money for those straggling vines. That afternoon, we planted them on either side of the small archway in the backyard that had been built by a previous owner. I remember wondering if the plants would be close enough for the male and the female to matter or if the vines needed to intertwine. Once the roots were buried in the clay, the vines barely reached to the bottom of the trellis. We tied them up with some twine and left nature to do its thing.

Muscadine vine, 13 years later.

Muscadine vine, 13 years later.


Its slow, slow thing. Nature’s veeeeery slow thing.

Richard died before ever getting to taste a muscadine from those vines. We stood under that bare archway after our wedding, with vines that still hadn’t reached waist high. I neglected the yard that summer, and the next. But the vines kept growing.

It took years for them to creep up and cover the top of the archway, their male and female tendrils twining together at last. After about five years, I spotted tiny fruit, but the birds got every grape.

I’ve never pruned it, fertilized it, watered it, nothing. Just let it be. One autumn, when the leaves changed color, I noticed that the muscadine vines had grown all up in the redbud tree next to the arch. All that growing, at long last.

But last weekend, while cleaning the pool, the light hit the vines just so and revealed heavy bunches of golden grapes. I couldn’t stop smiling. I stood under the dark shade of the covered arch and ate those sweet muscadines right off the vine. I made a basket with the tail of my t-shirt and picked all I could reach.

Muscadines are wild grapes; scuppernongs are the golden variety.

Muscadines are wild grapes; scuppernongs are the golden variety.

That thick pop of the skin and the sudden sweetness. When I was a kid, I used to buy a pint of scuppernongs every year at the Cotton Pickin’ Fair from Owens Vineyard. Back then, I’d enjoy the juice then spit out the pulp to avoid the seeds. I’m older and wiser now, and as I stood there in the shade of those vines we planted thirteen years ago, I enjoyed every bit of the grape.

It takes a while.

Back then I was young and willing to trust that this would lead to that. You look things up, you read the label, you plant things on the sunny side and you wait. And wait and wait and wait. I got swamped by life for all those years and I lost sight of the idea of grapes that we had entertained over a decade ago. During the growth years and the bird years and the years I was too busy with babies to worry about what was going on in my own backyard.

Then one Saturday I taste the sweetness that we had planted so long ago. From there to here. From green to gold. From all of that…to sweetness.

You just have to hold on and keep growing. It takes longer than I ever imagined.

Scuppernong tendrils

Scuppernong tendrils

Mrs. Talmadge’s Backyard

Instead of walking down the sidewalk to my office, like I used to do, I’ve recently taken to cutting through Mrs. Talmadges’s backyard in the morning and afternoon. That’s not as rude as it sounds, because Mrs. Talmadge lived past 100 and died a few years back. The house has been empty for a while, but it’s owned by the hospital so I’m not trespassing.

More than a hundred years ago, Prince Avenue stretched for a mile with grand mansions rising on either side of the street. These days, the few old homes that survived have become the Suntrust bank, a doctor’s office, an event facility, the UGA president’s home, a fraternity house. A few decades back, our hospital acquired the Talmadge properties–after all, we’d been neighbors since 1919. Mrs. Talmadge enjoyed a “life estate” which gave her the right to live in her home for the rest of her years.


So over the years, the hospital campus grew up on the land around her white-columned Greek Revival home. The Julius Talmadge mansion next door to hers became the outpatient surgery center, with a modern surgery facility built off the back of the house. Our parking deck rose in the back corner of her yard, past the pecan trees. The hospital grounds crew pruned her azaleas and kept the grass cut just how she liked it. I can smell the perfume from the massive tea olives that flank  Mrs. Talmadge’s front walkway as I walk through the doctors’ parking lot on the way to the cafeteria. The driveway to the Human Resources Building shares a row of irises, daffodils, crocuses and hyacinths with Mrs. Talmadge’s front yard.

And we were good neighbors for all those years. No employee EVER cut through Mrs. Talmadge’s property while she was alive. That would have just been tacky. I kept up that tradition for years myself. But now that the lady of the house is gone, the house sits quietly as the hospital bustles around it. And the backyard has been pulling at my heart this spring.

Gardens are planted to be admired, and Mrs. Talmadge’s garden feels lonely. Stuck there behind the empty house and the parking deck, it’s still doing what it’s always done–blooming, growing, showing off–and it deserves some admiration.



I come from a long line of people who plant gardens. So one morning when the grass wasn’t too wet with dew, I cut across Mrs. Talmadge’s backyard and I’ve been doing it ever since. Every morning, there’s something new to discover. In the afternoons, I run my hand across the warm red brick of the basement wall and I tell the house “Hey there, I see you.”

There’s a set of worn concrete steps that seem to lead to nowhere, but I can see they once made it easy to navigate a little terrace where the back driveway looped around the house from the porte cochere. Next to the steps, there’s an antique rose. Not the kind we’ve overbred for hardy hybrids with big showy blooms. This is an older gentlewoman, with delicate branches and soft red flowers in the summer that smell like roses are supposed to smell, not like the kind you buy chilled at the grocery store.



Under the dogwood trees, white Star-of-Bethlehem peek out from their deep green shoots. I spy violets in the grass, dark purple and white, and I cross my fingers that the grounds crew won’t cut them too soon now that the grass is greening up with spring.



And y’all–this morning, the air was filled with the smell of wisteria. Look at this astonishing specimen:



A vine that has found its way into the air, by leaning on a tree (I think it’s an oak but I’m not sure what variety). How many years did it take for these two to grow together, leaning on each other?

Old places, that have become what they are from the work of many hands over the span of many years–there’s so much to find in them.

Thank you, Mrs. Talmadge, for this garden and this reminder of how things grow. Leaning on each other, making space, keeping on even when there’s no one around to admire the splendor.

Why You’ll Never See a Lumberjack Wearing a Fitbit

I’ve been so active today that I’m already feeling sore. I’m sore at my Fitbit for jerking me around.

This morning, I spent over an hour down by the river working on my brush and ivy clearing project. Squatting, pulling out ivy by the roots, tugging it out of trees, hauling limbs to the river and chucking them in. The weather was so nice and it felt so good to be moving around that I decided that it was time to get rid of the two dead trees that have fallen over but are stuck on the bank.

So Carlos and I adventured out to Lowes and walked all over the place looking before I chose just the right axe. While the kids played inside the fence and Huck patrolled the bank for deer scents, G and I took turns whacking away at the dead beech tree. Those first chips flew into the air and the THWACK of my mighty axe blows echoed up and down the river. LOOK HOW FIT I AM!!!

It was easy going for the first few inches of tree because that part had been rotting for a while. Then we hit the center–that shit was HARD. Now I understand why they use beech to make railroad ties. (Yes, I looked that up.) G went back in the house for a saw. I was picturing a handsaw but he came back down the hill with a little reciprocating saw. Best used for cutting out keyholes and finger sandwiches. I fought not to roll my eyes. (I sure do sound like my parents’ daughter at this point, mocking my city-born man for his choice of blade.)

Big Stump, Calavaras Grove, California - Watkins, photographer Identifier: 104 Collection: Frank B. Rodolph Photograph Collection Album 2 : BANC PIC 1905.17147-PIC Contributing Institution: The Bancroft Library. University of California, Berkeley.

Big Stump, Calavaras Grove, California
The Bancroft Library. University of California, Berkeley.

But damn if we didn’t–with a combination of me on the axe, G on the nail file, a 4×4 used as a wedge under the chopped part and some ill-advised hopping up and down while perched on the part that tilted out over the river–get that tree snapped in two and tumbled into the water for the fish to nibble!

G cut down a couple of little scraggly cedars and some privet before the reciprocating saw said, “Take me Jesus, I’m done.” He went back to the house while I continued my fight with the English ivy. Seriously, I used to think that stuff was lovely, but now that it has taken over my river bank, I am looking into whether our neighborhood covenants will allow a goat.

After two hours of lumberjacking and full contact gardening, I came back in the house and synched my dongle. (You Fitbitters will know what I’m talking about –the rest of you will think perverse thoughts.)

Guess what? As I sat there with my back muscles aching and my thighs screaming, Fitbit was like, “Yeeeeeeaaaaaah, girl, that’s good for you and all, but I’m about THE STEPS. Sorry.” It blinked two little piddly-ass lights at me (4000 steps). Oh, but my dashboard DID give me a pat on the head for TWO VERY ACTIVE MINUTES. I’m guessing, since we’re going based on steps, that those were the two minutes it took me to walk down the hill with my tools and then drag my tired butt back up the hill after hours of effort.

I’m not giving up. After the kids were in bed tonight, I walked myself up to the movie theater and my Fitbit went CRAZY. It was all, “Now you’re STEPPING!”

There’s a Zen proverb that comes to mind:

Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.

After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.


Finding our goal isn’t something separate from everyday life. It’s the tasks of every day that help us get there. Enlightenment doesn’t happen on just the right yoga retreat and fitness doesn’t happen because my wrist tells me so.

Even when we reach the goal, we still have to take care of the daily tasks that keep us living. I can’t walk to the movie (YAY!) then eat a tub of popcorn (BOO!). The path is never something outside your life. It is your life.

Work’s not valuable because the Fitbit can measure it. Work is valuable because now I can sit on a clear spot and appreciate the miracle of having a river in my back yard.


Two Convertibles, Some Azaleas, and a $3 Tiller

Friday morning, the strangest thing happened–I was early for work.  Significantly early.  I’m so used to chasing my tail in a rush that I decided to enjoy the 20 minutes of peace and sit in my car.  That lasted about three minutes.  As I stepped out of my SUV then paused to pick up the Diet Coke cans, peanut shells, unsigned permission slips, and My Little Ponys that came rolling out onto the pavement, Cindy pulled up in a white BMW convertible.

Y’all.  Her car is so CLEAN.  I peaked inside and the only thing on the passenger’s side was a little net with a nicely folded shopping bag tucked into it.  Of course, the car is also so small that she had to pop the trunk to get her book out.

I blurted, “I can’t wait to have a tiny car that only has room for ME!”

She said, “Well, when my son turned 16, I gave HIM the minivan and bought myself a convertible.”  Awesome.  And so much easier on the insurance budget.

Drooling over Cindy’s tiny white convertible took me back to a hot Saturday afternoon in April, 2004.  Richard had found an old rotor tiller at the dumpster that only needed a $3 spark plug.  He would have torn up every inch of lawn and put in tomatoes if I had let him.  On Friday night, he had tilled up a space for a vegetable garden and an herb garden.  He was thinking about putting in CORN, but ran out of daylight, thank goodness.

So there we were on a muggy Saturday morning in the bugs and the heat, ripping out the flower beds that run allllllll the way across the front of this house.  Monkey grass and ivy snarled every inch that wasn’t covered in old snaggly holly bushes.  All of it was coming out.  Every blade.  Every prickly leaf.

The $3 tiller lasted about another hour.  Pretty good for our investment, but it left us with hours of work left to do.  We each got a spade and started digging up monkey grass and cussing.  Four, five, six hours later and we finally had the beds cleared down to red dirt.  Then came the cow manure–15 bags to stir into the red clay.   Hoeing, raking, shoveling, stinking.  Ah, homeownership.  And it was HOT.  H-dammit-O-dammit-T.

Richard was never one to quit halfway through a job or to say, “This can wait until tomorrow.”  So as soon as we had the cow manure mixed in, it was time to plant azaleas.  We toodled on over to Cofer’s and dropped a bunch of money on deciduous azaleas, native azaleas, and two little variegated specimens that he bought because they were called “Ashley Marie.”  Sweet.

By dusk, we had it all done.  You know how gardening is in the early stages–dinky and spindly.  I was left underwhelmed after all our efforts.  Neither of us could move.  As we lay there, prostrate on the reawakening spring lawn, one of our neighbors drove by in a tiny white Miata with the top down.  Her strawberry blonde hair sparkled in the last light of day.  She was smiling, and as she drove past, slowly, she checked to make sure we weren’t laying dead in the front yard.  Richard and I each raised a hand in a weak wave and she waved in return before cruising down the hill in her convertible, into the sunset.

In that moment, I so envied her car and her freedom and the energy she had to be kind.  I rolled my head over towards him and said, “I bet her azaleas are already established.  Pfffffft.”  I felt myself looking forward, into the spring days ahead that wouldn’t require all that back breaking work.  The days where I would awaken to a yard filled with flowers and a tiny white convertible all my own.

I still don’t have the silly car, but I do have the flowers.  Every spring, they make me smile, remembering all that sweat and toil.  Working on something together.  I think he would have loved how they turned out.





Cherry Blossoms

I remember one Easter when my nephews were small–they grabbed handfuls of cherry blossoms that had fallen from the trees in Nana and Papa’s yard.  Jackson and Grant flung the pale pink petals in the air so they floated down to dust baby Jake’s head.  We all laughed as the boys sang, “It’s snowing!  It’s snowing!” while Jake squealed with joy.  That’s been a dozen years ago and I still remember the sound of their laughter and the astonishment I felt at loving these small, new people so keenly.

Isn’t it holy to live in a moment and know that you will remember it for the rest of your life?  Cherry blossoms remind me to look up.  We are alive, beneath the cherry blossoms.



Great Moments in ESL History

clematisWhat’s “ESL” you ask?  That’s “English as a Second Language.”

My baby daddy, G, has lived in the U.S. for so long and his English is so perfect that I sometimes forget that Portuguese is his first language.  This morning was NOT one of those moments.

We were standing on the deck, surveying our kingdom….otherwise known as talking about yard projects that need to be done this spring.

“I’m going to plant those two roses by the fence today.”  He pointed in their direction with his coffee cup.

“Oh, good.  I like climbers on the fence,” I answered.

He pointed to a large pot in the corner of the pool fence.  “Looks like the chlamydia is coming back.”


“That’s ‘clematis,’ sweetie.  It’s a perennial.”

He filed that word away in his language banks then said, “Well…so is chlamydia!”

This is why I love him.