By Anna Daniels
My mother loved the horses. She grudgingly attended sulky races at The Meadows race track in western Pennsylvania, but it was flat racing that captivated her heart. She and my father would argue for days about the line up for the Kentucky Derby and lay bets with the local bookie; only the stupid or insane would dare to carry on a conversation anywhere close to the television set during the broadcast of this event.
Mom was also a devoted albeit quirky gardener–confident in her abilities to grow abundant vegetables and flowers and contemptuous of those who over-think the process. “Grow where you are planted” was delivered as an edict, not cajolery. Her gardening philosophy mirrored in many ways her philosophy on child rearing.
My younger sister and I were sitting in Mom’s kitchen a few decades ago discussing gardening. We had both thrown ourselves completely into turning our yards into beds for flowers, bushes and trees. We were comparing notes on the use of root toner when transplanting and whether to use fungicides on dahlia tubers. Seed catalogs passed between us for close review.
Mom stood at the table listening. “You two sure have more money than brains,” she pronounced. This was one of her favorite all-purpose phrases. “Do you know what I do? On Derby Day I go down into the basement and bring up the seeds I saved from last year and I throw them out into the beds. That’s it. What’s wrong with my gardens?”
My mother grew up in the long shadow of the Duquesne steel mills that had gone dark and silent during the Great Depression. Thrift was essential to survival and Mom continued this practice for the rest of her life, refining it into a spectacularly eccentric form of cheapness.
She didn’t believe in paying for plants or seeds. They were often exchanged freely among family and friends. Mom would thrust a cutting into the dirt on the property, which had formerly been an old farm. My father would say that soil was rich enough to grow ax handles. That certainly boosted the success rate of the forsythia and lilacs that started off as puny sticks. All of her many rose bushes grew from a cutting initially protected by a mason jar until the first leaves appeared. It often took a number of years before any of them flowered or grew tall enough to form a green fence along the property lines. The concept of instant gratification was truly foreign to my mother. It smacked of profligacy and that was a quality that was extirpated like a particularly obnoxious weed.
But to our great horror the same mother who instilled in us a clear sense of right and wrong would pass through the plant nursery section of a store and arrive home with a few cuttings of a begonia or some other plant that caught her fancy wrapped carefully in a Kleenex. She would put the cuttings in a glass of water and when there were sufficient roots, transplant them to a pot. The enormous angel wing begonia that has grown in my yard for decades is a cutting from the huge plant that sat in front of Mom’s living room window for decades, and it doubtlessly began its life as a purloined cutting.
After Mom died, my sister and I started sending packets of seeds to each other, with delivery timed to occur right before Derby Day. It was a funny little tradition that would include a phone call dedicated to remembering tiger lilies, tea roses and pussy willows and the woman who planted them.
Seven years have passed since I received the last package of seeds from my sister. And here it is Derby Day! My mother’s love for the horses never took root within me. Instead, I look out my window at the wild tangle of nasturtiums, geraniums and roses, all blooming at the moment in the little side garden. They are a testament to the woman who sowed seeds.