Friday, March 24, 2006

Nature or nurture?

Why do I garden? Why am I interested in cultivating flowers and vegetables and trees? Do you think it is something that I learned or something that has just always been some people have a passion and are good at sports? I can't decide which it is....learned or inate. I've known people that have fabulous gardeners for mothers that have absolutely no interest in getting their hands dirty. And the reverse, people that loved to garden but never had any parent or grandparent take up the shovel. But for me I suppose it is a little of both. I come from a long line of gardeners on my mother's side. My great-grandmother (Gran-nan) and her second husband (Gramps) were amazing growers. They lived outside of Harrisburg in a small house with a yard that was half a city block (albeit a Harrisburg city block, which run small). When I used to go there, there were homes crowded on all sides but her yard was like an oasis, full of Japanese maples and Magnolias and towering pines. Huge azaleas and lilacs filled the yard and it didn't take much to forget that you were within city limits. For years, they also had a large vegetable garden, but I never got to know that. Vegetable gardening stopped when Gramps died, just before I was born. I can remeber digging up marbles in the yard that Gran-nan said he used to shoot at cats that dared venture too near the vegetable patch. The picture below was taken in 1944, with my mother sitting on Gramps lap. There isn't much detail of the garden, but the little pine tree growing behind them....well, it grew a lot. I got stuck in it when I was 12 because I climbed so high I panicked and my mother had to go get a ladder to get me down. Sometimes I drive by that house, which is owned by another family now. They don't take care of the yard as much as she did, but most of the trees and shrubs are still there, huge as ever.

This is my grandmother in the early 1920s. I guess my Gran-nan was always a good gardener, even with young children. I wish I could tell what that flowering shrub is in the background. I don't remember irises in her yard. They must have been gone by the time I was born. My Gran-nan gardened well into her 80s. I was 15 when she died and experiencing my snotty teen years, and totally not into gardening. But I wish I had been. I'm sure I could have learned so much. And maybe gotten some pass-along plants and cuttings. I love the floppy red dahlias pictured below with the yellow middles. These were right outside her back porch, in about the only spot of sunny, open-space left in the yard.

My grandfather was a very-serious gardener as well. And I did manage to learn a lot from him. He was mostly into flowers and trees, although he did keep a small vegetable garden in the backyard. I remember spring onions for some reason. He always had those and I can't believe he got me to eat them when I was little. He also helped my mother with her vegetable garden when we were young. It was pretty impressive for several years, but then was turned into lawn when my brother and sister got bigger.

The photo below is of my mother, posing in front of one of my grandfather's pride and joys....the wisteria. My grandmother referred to it as the giant purple people eater, and as a child I did believe for years that it could actually ensnare and eat people, so I gave it a wide berth when passing by. I think it finally got out of control after my grandmother died and he cut it down.

Thankfully, I was able to save much of his gardening knowledge. He kept detailed binders of information and notes about when to prune and how to propagate and when to plant. I take those out often and just page through them, reading the years and years of accumulated advice. After he died and before the house was sold, I dug up the 4 Japanese Maples that he had started from seed and planted in a little nursery area at the rear of his property and moved them to my new house. They have tripled in size the last few years. I also took peonies that grew alongside his house, in an area that hadn't seen full sun in 20 years. They get full sun now and they seemed grateful the first year they bloomed after being transplanted in my yard.

Here I am inspecting whatever he had planted in the planter outside the back door. It almost looks like roses. An espaliered Pyracantha is along the wall to the right.
My mother was a champion gardener as, vegetables, lots of roses. She had a huge rose garden (over 70 plants) when I was a baby. When I was a toddler, I developed a vicious allergy to them and was sick for most a summer. The doctor called it rose fever and my mother had to tear all those bushes out. I always felt guilty about that, because I never exhibited an allergy to roses again. My mother was probably the one that introduced me to naturalistic gardening. She put together beautiful rock gardens and woodland gardens with ferns and hostas and bluebells and mayapples. That is probably still my favorite gardening medium, I just don't have the appropriate areas for it. I get too much sun and my soil is too dry mostly.

So is it nature or nurture? Are we born with the love of dirt, or is it learned? With me, it's both. What about you?


Blogger Garden Obsession said...

Fabulous post! I'm a bit of both as well. My grandfather was an ag teacher and they had a "city farm" after they retired. Of course, like you, I was all teenagery and afraid of bugs and wanted to stay in the a/c and read books. I distinctly remember thinking, "Why would you grow all this stuff when you can just go buy it?" Ha.

I suppose things happen for a reason. Makes me appreciate him that much more, gives us something to talk about even though our lives are so very different. It's nice that I can make him feel good by asking how he used to do this or that in his garden. Wish he'd kept notes like that but he just isn't that kind of guy. Kinda just did what came naturally and had my grandmother around with her Mensa brain to keep the catalog of everything.

Anyway, nice to see that someone else has the same kinds of nostalgic feelings as I do. Need to see if Pawpaw or Mom have pictures of it back in the day. Memaw's huge rose bed, cows, chicken, fruit trees, blackberry vines, even a CYO Christmas tree farm for a while. :) I have such a practical, matter of fact family that I doubt anyone thought to photograph all this stuff.

4:25 PM  
Blogger meresy_g said...

For some reason, I have a lot of old pictures of landscaping. Sometimes, the pictures had me in them but it seemed like they really wanted to photograph the azalea in full bloom behind me. And I wish I were into gardening as much as I am now when I was a lot younger and my great grandmother was still alive. I miss my grandfather a lot when I have questions about stuff like that. And go out and take lots of pictures of your garden so there will always be a record.

4:57 PM  
Blogger Liz said...

My grandparents had a small farm... he grew the vegetables and she grew the flowers, and while I always enjoyed visiting them and exploring their place, I wasn't into the whole "digging in the dirt" thing. Or vegetables either, actually.

It really wasn't until James and I had an apartment with a balcony that I became interested in growing anything. We started with a planter box for growing herbs and our landlords let us use a little bit of their garden for a couple of tomatoes and zucchini. I was hooked. Our veggie garden space was limited at our last house, but our perennial gardens grew and grew. Sometimes I'm sad when I think about it because the people who bought our house weren't exactly the gardening type. It's probably a forest of maple and walnut trees and rose of sharon these days.

Anyway, my parents don't have the gardening gene... my mom tries, but usually just sticks to the basic landscape plants. And my dad has been trying to create a wildflower garden for YEARS. He has been the most successful at cultivating pigweed.

I, too, wish that I could consult with my grandparents. They were from the "old country" and saved their own seed and everything. They had a lot of knowledge that I didn't realize would be helpful to me now. My grandpa died shortly after I met James (they never even got the chance to meet) and my grandma started going downhill soon after, so I never really got to share my gardening obsession with them.

5:05 PM  
Blogger meresy_g said...

The first thing I ever grew were flowers and jalapenos on a little wooden deck/fire escape in West Chester during college. They turned out okay but I've been 'relandscaping' every rental house since then. I always rented apartments in old houses, so there was always yard to play with. At least we're writing a lot of what we know down. It's weird to think that all this will still be floating around in the ether long after we're gone.

12:03 PM  
Blogger Barb said...

Wow, this makes me want to go thru photo albums and find similar past gardens. I could have written what you said about being 15. My grandmother had a lath house, a wishing well, and a fish pond in her garden. When she passed away suddenly, my grandfather was so grieved that he got rid of everything. It was so tragic for me--all these things and people that I thought would be there forever. I miss them dearly even now.

6:27 PM  
Blogger meresy_g said...

It's so frustrating that we're so dumb when we're young. If only I could go back now knowing what I now know.

10:50 AM  
Blogger Liz said...

I know... but if I was always crazy about gardening, maybe I wouldn't appreciate growing as much as I do now. You can send me back to age 15, but I'll still be a stuck-up anti-gardener.

7:49 PM  
Blogger meresy_g said...

It would suck to go back to 15. I wouldn't mind setting the clock back to 30, but anything before thanks.

9:56 AM  
Anonymous Judith said...

Such a fabulous post, Meredith. I am playing catch up here after being away--much to read. Yes, why do we garden? Is it nature or nurture, as you 'say'? Great historical photos which certainly bring up our personal gardening past in each & every one of us. My maternal grandmother is the one who planted the garden seed in me. My father was English & told me of the English gardens in his life, but once he became an American citizen, he succumbed to keeping a lawn...Thanks for sharing your history with us.

10:10 AM  

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