Vicarious Gardening



Sticks-in-a-drowse droop over sugary loam,
Their intricate stem-fur dries;
But still the delicate slips keep coaxing up water;
The small cells bulge;

One nub of growth
Nudges a sand-crumb loose,
Pokes through a musty sheath
Its pale tendrilous horn.

from Theodore Roethke’s COLLECTED POEMS, 1948

Besides giving up my pinball machine, the hardest part of moving from a four bedroom, custom-built Florida house to a two bedroom Pittsburgh condo was abandoning my garden. That garden pretty much encompassed the entire yard because instead of rolling out the usual Florida lawn sod, I had xeroscaped with stone(s) and wood chips. I kept no indoor plants, but in the yard I had planted lots of citrus trees—including a Meyer lemon—five flowering trees, and kept a volunteer elderberry from which to make jelly or an occasional pie. My usual herb garden was planted along both sides of the front walk. I’d also tucked into a back, single-windowed corner a small waterfall-pond edged with stones and flowers. Tending the yard, as well as the steep, vine-planted back bank down to Lake St. George, the gardens, the pond, the large house, the swimming pool, a small poetry career, an ailing husband; shopping and cooking all the while dealing with my own aging process just got to be too much. I was exhausted. Even though I still loved doing it all, I gave up that beautiful house, its grounds, its lake view, and gardening. I had to save my own life. For a while longer.

Anticipating my drive north to Pittsburgh, out on the pool lanai I clipped a few sprigs from two huge Christmas cacti brooding in a dark corner, that I had moved as sprigs from Erie 15 years earlier. I stuck them in a water glass to root—my only concession to what I envisioned as my future, plantless condo life. When the house sold and the time came to load my car, I wrapped my hairy rooted cactus sprigs in a wet paper towel, put them in a small plastic bag to ride shotgun with me up I-75. And then, at the last minute I also rescued a few flower pots that I’d left at the curb. When I unpacked in Pittsburgh, I firmly pushed the flower pots into the very back of the linen closet, placed my cactus sprigs into another old glass and set it in my north east dinning room window. As far as I was concerned, my Pittsburgh garden was complete.


My first venture into gardening at age eight was the result of a gift of several dozen tulip bulbs from my Great Aunt Et. Aunt Et was short. Aunt Et was so short and agile that she comfortably planted and weeded her vegetable and flower gardens by simply bending at her waist. She loved growing anything, cooking, baking cookies, and talking a mile a minute all the while her false teeth clicked and danced within her smiling mouth. She liked talking to anyone, even me practically eye to eye when my family was always invited for New Year’s dinner in her big red brick house on the east side of Erie, PA. She was also a good listener who somehow figured out that I’d really like to grow flowers though my Dad was of the opinion that his garden was only for growing food to get us through the long hard cold winter in Mill Village 25 miles south of Erie.

Aunt Et may have been small, but she was a powerful talker. Though I wasn’t allowed to waste the ground of Dad’s garden, I was allowed to dig up the lawn out by the driveway. I can still almost feel how tired and sweaty I was that fall Saturday from removing the sod and digging those dozens of six inch holes in which to plant my tulip bulbs that Aunt Et had sent home with my Dad for me. And, I will always remember the spring of ’49 when those tulips arose, bloomed red, yellow, white, purple along with a couple that were striped red and white! I couldn’t bear to pick them. As if they were in some way Aunt Et, I visited them every day until they receded as the lawn’s grass marched back.

The next year my mother planted lupines on both sides of the driveway—her first time for flower gardening—too.


During my first marriage, I lived with my husband on his fallow 100 acre farm. I took up bee keeping and planted a garden of both vegetables and flowers. When for some obscure reason he brought home half a dozen Grey Toulouse geese, I took care of them. After a year or so, I noticed that many of the geese’s eggs were being eaten by the local wildlife. The next spring, I ordered an egg incubator, read the detailed instructions, gathered a dozen goose eggs, and set the incubator in our bedroom.

Thirty two days later, I was awakened before dawn by a weak peep peep. I leapt out of bed, turned on a light, opened the incubator to find that the peep peep was coming from a slightly wobbling intact egg. A few hours later there was a duet of peep peeps from another intact egg. I reread the instructions and was relieved to find my eggs were doing just fine, but I needed to not only keep sprinkling the eggs with water and turning them as I had been doing every day, but also I now needed to briefly immerse each egg twice a day in warm water. Three days later the first gosling pecked its way out of its shell. Over the course of the next day or so, all but three of the rest managed the same feat. However, I had to carefully restrain myself from establishing any eye contact with the goslings or they would imprint on me, and I would be impressed into mother goose service. I knew there was no way on Earth that I could carry out the skills of a mother goose from even the most detailed of instructions. So, each night as the goslings hatched, eyes closed I would put the goslings into my coat pockets, sneak outside to the nests of what had become my setting geese, and push the newest goslings under a goose. Given the fierce protective nature of geese, I had thought that might be an impossible feat; however, it turned out that all those months of my feeding and walking among the flock may have built a trust between us so that they accepted my furtive midwifery. Or maybe the sounds of those peep peep’s each setting goose, too.

Leaving my geese behind when I had to move from my abusive husband’s farm was harder and more painful than my leaving him.


As my Christmas cactus cuttings settled into Pittsburgh’s light, I had lots of friends and family’s first visits, and most brought house warming gifts: bottles of wine, local restaurant gift cards, and plants. I couldn’t bring myself to refuse their well meant gifts, and further after each plant bearer left I couldn’t bring myself to throw away a perfectly good small fern, a tiny red bromeliad, a serviceable succulent, or even the 3 foot palm tree that my brother, Jerry, gave me. I did, though, keep them all herded in my dining room. They were low light plants. How much work could they make?

Meanwhile, I was enjoying Gateway Center’s expertly kept, ever-blooming pink roses and admiring Point State Park’s carefully tended, faux woodland of wild flowers and trees as spring/ summer/fall melted into each other. Mid-winter came, and the palm tree jaundiced, then died. I cleaned out its pot, pushed it into the linen closet with the rescued Florida pots. Another six months passed as I continued to dump enough water on the sill plants to keep them alive.


Sometime after Christmas this year, I began to feel rested, to feel as if in some way I had as a person begun to put down my roots in Pittsburgh. At that point, I inspected those survivors still huddled against the dining room window glass. All of them had grown, even thrived almost out of their cramped quarters. Intending to at least give the water glass dwelling Christmas cactus a real pot, I bought a bag of potting soil. When I went to choose a pot from the linen closet, I realized the cactus needed one of the larger pots, a pot too large for the sill, so I placed it in my office. Though it had already finished its bit of holiday blooming, within a week it sprouted more flower buds, re-bloomed. Who knew Christmas cacti relished computer light? At that point I gave in to my past, bought some fertilizer, another larger bag of soil. I used the rest of the rescued pots for the gift plants, then acquired a big money plant and an even bigger clump of mother-in-law tongue, knowing full well that in spite of their names they were both easy, undemanding souls. I realized I felt better. Maybe it was the extra oxygen the exuberant transplants were generating, or maybe it just felt good on some curious level to become for a few sentient beings the wind and the rain?


Yet, I must admit there was one other gift I received that I almost threw out. Late November, early December last year a condo employee informed me that I had a package marked both fragile and time-sensitive waiting for me. I was puzzled; I hadn’t ordered anything of that sort. When I opened it I discovered that my poet friend, Pat Callan, who lives part time in Florida had sent me an early Christmas gift—a dozen paper narcissi bulbs and a simple unglazed, red pottery bowl. Her gift seemed like too much. Too generous. Too much work for me. I wavered. I took a long walk down by the Allegheny River, looked at its no color water and the gray sky, but I kept walking anyway. I came back to my warm, light-filled condo, looked around in my dining room cabinets where I found a net bag of polished pebbles that I had bought years before from Target just because they were quietly beautiful, and just for the sake of their beauty, at the last minute I had tucked them into a moving box packed with dishes. While the bulbs wouldn’t really have to have soil they would need some sort of support—those pebbles. Still, it all seemed to be too much.

The next morning I finally nestled into the pebble-filled bowl the six bulbs that within the darkness of their dry bag had begun to push out a new complexity of pale sprouts. I poured in a cup of warm water, and carried my new garden into my living room to place it near my reading chair.

Filed under: Nola Garrett, Prose