Plants of a (mis)Spent Youth

Friends ask me how I got into this line of work. How do can I explain it to a non-plant person? It’s all about the plants, after all, but how? What is it about the flowers, or the mulch, or the dirt? How did I get from playing Led Zeppelin on my eight track, painting my parent’s house white (again) to landscaping?

Lily of the Valleyis my earliest plant memory. lilyvalleyIncongruously, planted on the south side of the house, explaining the brown leaves all summer. My sister and I, 6 and 4 years old, picking little Dixie cups full of the white bells, and running next door on May Day, setting the flowers on the porch, ringing the door bell, and running like hell home. Forever linked in my head: the smell of Lily of the Valley, and the smell of band-aids for skinned knees.

Silver Maple-picking up sticks in the back yard in springtime. Lots of sticks. Lots and lots of sticks. So many sticks, I almost brought my kids to tears once, when I suggested we pick up sticks for their grandparents. My mom offered the kid across the street $50 to do it last year, and he said no. She never offered to pay me.

Sugar Maple. You have not truly lived until you have seen your dad peel all the wallpaper off the kitchen wall showing his son how maple syrup is made.

Bridalwreath Spirea, Spirea x vanhouttei. Did you know if you pick stems of flowers and put them in a vase with food dye, you can get the flowers to turn color? It’s a totally different flower in black.

So much for early childhood memory, short of a forsythia hedge moving 5′ north in our back yard (tips of the branches arching over and rooting in the ground), and some pleasant tree climbing memories (Norway maple, politically incorrect now, but has great branch spacing necessary for climbing). The epiphany came when I had the great fortune of starting work for a plant person.

Plant person? Yeah, I knew I was all in when we were driving to the next lawn to mow, and a tree service was topping some red maples in a yard along the way. Mark, my former boss, rolls down the window, slows down, and yells “Murderers!” at the top of his lungs. Maybe it was the heat,dianthus-alpinus but the house we went to had Cottage Pinks, Dianthus alwoodii, smelling of carnations, a close relative, stretched across 100′ of stone wall in the back yard, full bloom: the only landscaping in the yard, and utterly perfect.

Or Lacebark pine, driving 20 minutes out of our way to a job because I’d had the great misfortune of not having seen one yet? Have you? A pine with bark like a Sycamore. Don’t come and see the one I’ve planted in my backyard, it takes an older and wiser tree to know how to show off, and mine is only growing about 3″ a year for the last 8 years. (For those of you keeping track, yes, it is one of the first trees I planted) Likewise wait a while for the one I planted across from Emma Willard next to the Middlebury College sign.

Or driving through the Imperial Nurserieswholesale yard picking plants for a job. Now, I’d spent some time in garden centers, rest assured. Ever since I was about 12 or so customers would come up and ask me questions, regardless of where Iwas, just assuming I’d worked there. This yard, though, required driving, for it was measured in acres and miles. We needed a map to get to the exbury azaleas. (that’s another olfactive memory) Not so at another nursery, the lovely Summer Hill Nursery. We went there (presumably) just for a couple of plants. Looking back, it was probably more for the Bald Cypress planted there. (Yeah, I’ve got those planted too, right in my ditch. Hoping for the knees they for in native locales, although most springs I’m just happy when they finally break bud after winter-they’re very slow, and I worry.) (Yes, some at Middlebury too. Just planted last fall near the McCullough plaza. Ron was walking by, and asked if they were going to make it. An astute observation-the fall color is a dead rust color. For all intensive purposes in a couple of weeks every fall they look like they’ve kicked the bucket.)

Or my first design job, a small perennial garden (Mark was a dwarf conifer guy, hence letting the young whippersnapper do the perennials). Imagine, if you will, the heartbreak of doing a great job (so Mark said), then going back in 2 months to see the plants staked upright and tied with pantyhose. Just cause it’s in an organic gardening magazine doesn’t always mean it’s a good idea.

Or the guilt of being shown a rare variegated shoot on yew, then trimming all the yews around the church and forgetting about the shoot, whomping the next potential great plant into utter oblivion. It was about 100 degrees that day, but that’s really no excuse, right?

I haven’t explained the Led Zepplin, and if you have to ask what an eight track is you are on your own. And my parent’s house is no longer white, but cars once in a while slow down while driving in front, looking at theDSC00024Paperbark maple I planted in the front yard after painting all summer. One of those at Middlebury too, across from the field house. It’s the Class of 1942 tree. Go look at it, worth the walk, even in the cold.

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