Clara Curtis is the director of design at the North Carolina Arboretum (ncarboretum.org). Gardens are a big part of her life, in many ways, and she dutifully cultivates her own garden at her home in Haywood County, NC.
 

 
 

Making Garden Memories
by Clara A. Curtis - posted 02/13/12


(photo copyright istockphoto.com/johnnyscriv)

This winter, I’ve been thinking about how plants add meaning to our lives. I’m not thinking about our food plants, our medicinal plants or even plants that house us and clothe our bodies. Obviously, plants preserve and sustain our lives, and a study of even one economic plant is a fascinating pursuit. Rather, I am considering the plants that add sentimental value to life.

One of my earliest memories is in my maternal grandfather’s vegetable garden. He was known throughout the community as the best vegetable gardener at a time when most families cultivated a vegetable garden. He grew a large and abundant garden and shared freely with friends and family — this may have been why he was considered the best gardener in the area.

My little brother and I spent endless hours in that garden helping our mother and grandparents. I’m not sure how much help we were, but I remember pulling carrots out of long rows, picking lots of beans and strawberries and learning how vegetables grow. Carrots were such a visual reward as they emerged as large orange fingers from the soft loamy soil of the creek side. We were always allowed to run to the creek, where we washed clean and ate this treat. One of my prized Kodak images features my brother and I sitting on a rock wall with three dishpans full of strawberries picked from that plentiful garden. We have strawberry-stained shirts and smiles. The season of vegetable gardening is forever linked in my memory to my grandfather.

Florist flowers also have a strong place in my memory. My paternal grandmother started a florist business in the late 1950s. By the time I was old enough to sit in a cardboard box, I was at the florist with my mother, who helped make corsages for Mother’s Day and other events. The smell of carnation flowers mingles with my visual memories of tall gladiolus in cool buckets of water. My mother always reminds me that her senior prom corsage was a very large and special Cattleya orchid that my grandmother made for her. Florist shops and the fragrance of flowers transport me back to that sweet early time.

Woodlands and fields were my playground and the place where I learned the names of wildflowers and trees. I played with plants like tulip poplar leaves, which closely resemble the shape of slices of bread, and ox-eye daisy petals, which resemble rice when picked from the disc. My maternal grandmother was a wildflower gardener and prided herself in her native plants garden. She took me to peer under wild ginger’s mottled heart-shaped leaves to see “little brown jugs,” and I never visited without hearing an account of what was flowering in the garden. Wildflowers are locked in my memory representing my grandmother.

Cultivated garden flowers also imprint my memory. The two that represent the strongest memory are both linked to my florist grandmother who had no place and no time to grow wildflowers or a vegetable garden. Instead, she planted a bright strip of a flower garden against the front-porch railing that included parrot tulips in the spring and green zinnias in the summer. Both flowers were exquisite and equally spectacular in their season. The flowers and this grandmother never leave my memory.

‘February Gold’ narcissus  (photo courtesy of Clara A. Curtis.)

Today in my own garden, I am waiting to see the first flowers of ‘February Gold’ narcissus. I inherited a planting of this early blooming heirloom daffodil when we bought our home in 1990. Located at the base of a Southern-facing, dry stacked stone retaining wall, the bulbs are the first harbinger of spring in my garden and mark our youngest daughter’s birthday annually. Born in late February, she has never celebrated without ‘February Gold’ narcissus surrounding her cake, decorating a vase by her bedside or featured in her birthday dinner table arrangement. One of the oldest narcissus in cultivation (1923) and easily naturalized, this daffodil is now in my daughter’s memory list of plants.

What’s in your garden that is making memories today? Surround yourself and your family with plants and flowers in celebration and in making memories.

 

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