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Ask yourself: What if you couldn't garden?

Landscaping in Alaska

Posted: Wednesday, May 02, 2001

Last Saturday my friend pulled into the nursery, her car filled with small primroses in plastic bags. She had been at a sale and the lady had been selling her garden. She was 80 years old and could no longer weed and cultivate her beds. The story was delivered in somber tones and we all paused in our rush to reflect.

It is difficult to imagine that we will find ourselves in the position of being forced to sell or lose the treasured companions of our gardens. Age and infirmity will change us from rapid folders and unfolders to slower ones, and then to ones that have to be very careful as we move. Adaptations to our gardens - raised beds, ramps, special tools and smaller plants - are part of the process, but letting go of these friends is going to be the hardest part. The process is usually one of gradual transformation, from a large outdoor garden to a smaller one with raised beds and porch planters, then to window boxes and house plants. The pleasure of visiting and communing with our friends will continue. Many Juneau gardeners have made very satisfying lives gardening in small spaces. Look at all those flower and fruit filled yards in the downtown flats, and now the thousands of condominium and apartment dwellers who maintain a garden on their decks.

Ms. Bernie Mellenbach has been gardening on her tables and window sills long before I met her, and when we encountered over a roughly treated Phalenopsis orchid I knew I was in the presence of a devoted plant protector. She took the poor darlings back to her home, and within a couple of years had them cooing and blooming abundantly. Her home was filled with orchids, and the dancing blossoms testified to their contentment.

The passion for cultivation, and the appreciation of the process of guarding and nourishing damaged or mistreated plants is an acquired one. There are no quick crash courses in how to be a heartfelt gardener. Being aware of the silent communication, the subtle change in attitude of a leaf or the untimely fading of the color in a bud are the result of years spent in close company with these companionable species.

Dozens of visitors come daily to our nursery to stroll through the flower- filled greenhouses reveling in the dancing pansies. This time of year the floors are solidly occupied with color and the air is softly awash in their sweet perfume. Working adults take their lunch break under the trees and wander through the shrub beds watching the unfolding blooms of the rhododendrons and the opening of the leaves on the new trees. They are not shopping, they are visiting.

They spend 30 minutes outside in the company of silent flowers, sharing it with the raucous ravens and hearing the familiar trill of the varied thrush. Squirrels dash about confidently, sitting on the handrails and staring at the humans, and the maintenance staff are busily watering and arranging display areas. It is a refreshing experience, and reconnects live people with their live world.

Gardening for yourself, visiting the gardens of other people, or going into the vast garden that surrounds us all, fills us with life force. Breathing is less automatic; air has more texture, and colors shade into one another with a far wider spectrum. Human companionship is augmented by the reciprocal awareness of the flowers and plants in this other part of our world. It is not a world apart, it is right here, and being able to participate is a treasure.

It is rare to see a "Do not look at my garden" sign. People delight in sharing their arrangements and features with other gardeners. Clubs, societies and informal collections of plant fanciers abound, and there are no finer populations in our world. The old habit of dropping by to pick up a friend and take them for a ride to look at the gardens is a fine way to spend the afternoon. This way a person who has had to let go of planting, weeding and pruning for themselves, can enjoy the results of others' gardening too.

Modern medical research confirms what we all know from our personal experience, wellness is more than the absence of symptoms. Aching, failing muscles and stiffening joints are relieved by contact with the plant world.

Lonely spirits and saddened hearts find ease there too. If you know someone who has suffered, pick them up and carry them into the garden. You will be doing both of yourselves a favor.



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