This is a mostly-autobiographical story I wrote quite a few years ago, when my daughters were little and I tried my hand as a gardener-for-hire for part of the summer. It was first published in Greenwoman #4.
The first three hours working in the wealthy client’s garden that hot morning are business as usual, focusing on the labors of weeding, watering, dead-heading, and tying rose canes to arbors, all the while enjoying the sunshine and occasional refreshing mountain breeze. Then boredom sets in. Because my daughters are young and I’ve been reading bushels of storybooks about talking animals, it seems natural to amuse myself by inventing tales about plants and other animated citizens of the garden.
I imagine the Kentucky Bluegrass family are the well-fed and manicured lords and ladies of the manor. And it’s made them quite uppity.
“Oh, look, it’s Mr. Dandelion,” whispers Lady Bluegrass to her friends, eyeing the stranger standing across the ballroom. “How did he get in here?” The ladies secretly think Mr. Dandelion dandy, a good-natured hunk with a gorgeous yellow mane. But he’s not of “their kind,” so they’d never say this aloud.
Lords Blade and Spike stand nearby. Blade smirks. “Oh, look Spike, it’s Dandelion. You know how the Dandelions are—give them any room at all and they’ll simply take over.”
“Yes, and they’re so garish! You know, I heard the Vincas are in the process of moving,” says Spike. “They are quality, but still, it’ll be nice to have the neighborhood to ourselves again.”
The ladies overhear and smile at the lords. Everyone nods in approval.
I dig Mr. Dandelion out with my apple green Martha Stewart trowel. He takes it like a weed. Doesn’t say a thing. “Sorry,” I whisper, before tossing him next to the vincas I’ve dug out and potted.
In the hole created by Dandelion’s departure I spy two worms. They, too, are insufferable snobs.
“You’re a Broadmoor worm, son, act like it!” says Big Daddy Squiggles.
Sonny Boy Worm stretches tall, trying to make it appear that he has a spine.
Everyone knows their place here in the Broadmoor, our city’s most monied, most pampered burg. The Broadmoor, home of the five-star, world famous hotel of the same name has been Colorado Springs’ mecca of East Coast gentility since the town was founded in the once-wild 1860’s West. It’s nestled next to Cheyenne Mountain and the hotel has a new fence around it, just put in this year, to keep out the riff-raff. That would include me. I’m no one special. Just the hired help. A gardener.
I soon grow bored with the play, yet I’m still mostly content, deep in a blissful sun/work trance.
The spell vanishes when loud arguing comes from the mansion.
A male voice declares, “I only said I found her moderately attractive.”
The female’s reply is garbled.
Who are they talking about? I guess someone along the lines of a secretary, and I’m embarrassed to hear a domestic row. Then I imagine that perhaps the argument’s about me. After all, there I crouch, easily visible not ten feet away from their huge Palladian-style windows, trimmed down and toned considerably from weeks of physical labor, brown as a berry, healthy, flushed with sweat and sunshine, feeling creative and a little sexy and interminably bored. Perhaps, I muse, my cleavage is visible as I tend the grass. Maybe the Mr. has a wondering eye, and the Mrs. is quite fed up with it.
My mind drifts again. I think about a movie I watched recently, Gods and Monsters, and how the gay director of Frankenstein fame lusted after Clay, or “the yard man,” as he was called, played by Brendan Fraser. The old tomcat watched Clay from his window, greedily lapping him up like so much yardman cream. Soon Clay is invited in for a glass of iced tea, then lunch, then receives an offer for a modeling job, posing nearly nude for a painting.
My lingering bit of zen fades. I begin to feel as trapped as the yard man did in Queen Leer’s studio, but in another way. I miss my girls, who are home with Andy, my self-employed husband. I’m tired of working out in this heat every day, waiting for my skin to shrivel up like a dried peach. My own garden’s now seriously neglected, and I have an idea for a novel that’s begging to get out on paper. I’m sick of working in spoiled rich people’s gardens. Who am I kidding? I’m amusing myself by having the plants perform, by making up sexy gardener scenarios. I’m bored out of my freaking mind. I have been almost since I started this work.
* * *
For a few months I’ve been playing professional gardener. Hattie Goodacre, who found herself short-handed in April, asked me to come work for her part time, only fifteen to twenty hours a week, and I jumped at the chance. I knew all about the gardening part, back-breaking labor mixed with equal parts bliss, and figured the experience wouldn’t be too far from that. Getting out of the house, a break from domesticity, was a plus, as was having a “real” (read “paying”) job. I welcomed the opportunity for camaraderie, outdoor work, and extra cash with which to indulge my own garden.
Hattie picks me up on the first day in her small truck. The back of it’s covered with ecologically-minded bumper stickers and hippie words-of-wisdom, like “Who Owns You?” and “Subvert the Dominant Paradigm,” “Dare to Legalize Drugs,” and “Trees are the Answer.” Hattie’s ten years older than I, in her 40s, and I’m one of her greatest admirers. She’s an individual in a city that’s seemingly run by fundamentalist Christians and developers; where marching to the tune of your own drummer is nearly as frowned upon as same-sex marriages. She’s an early hippie and she looks the part, with nearly waist-length, beginning-to-grey hair braided in a ponytail and covered with a floppy straw hat, tie-dye tank shirt, Teva sandals, and dangling jewelry of silver and wood.
We met a few years earlier at the Cooperative Extension’s Master Gardener program. I was student, she was an instructor. I discovered Hattie possessed something rare and precious: a philosophy relating to gardening and her connection to nature. More importantly, she walked the talk. She spends much of her free time on environmental awareness, promoting permaculture, helping to save wild spaces, and non-environmental causes, such as helping the poor. Sensing a kindred soul, I gave her a copy of Michael Pollen’s book Second Nature while I was taking the master gardening course. She, in turn, invited me to join her garden club. I learned she was also a writer; we became friends.
On our first day working together, we head to the nursery to pick up some Feathermeal, a deer repellent. She banters with the help as I take it all in, happy to be part of a new adventure. I’m wearing faded jeans, a green T-shirt, sneakers. I hate hats and have left mine in the truck.
As we pull out of the driveway, Hattie spies the seashell shaped top of a birdbath, lying near a fence. It’s chipped on one side. “Look at that.”
“Garden art,” I say.
“I’m going to go ask them what they’re going to do with it.”
I wait in the truck. It’s a throwaway and Hattie claims it. Back in the cab she says, “Bitchin’.”
Hattie’s also a foster mom for plants. Her home garden’s filled with orphans rescued from trash and compost piles.
At the first client’s home I meet Hattie’s new business partner, a twenty-two year old woman named Jill. Hattie filled me in on the way—Jill’s a former class valedictorian, taking some time off from college, she’s just bought her own home, a small ranch style house. Hattie discovered her last year, working for $8 an hour for another gardener. When that gardener moved out of state, Hattie snagged Jill. “I could not believe how much she knew,” Hattie told me earlier in the truck. “She’s a genius.” Although Jill knows a lot, she hasn’t yet been accepted into the Master Gardener program.
Jill looks younger than I imagined; her short blond hair is pulled into a ponytail, kinda Gidget-y. She wears a big smile and no makeup.
“Man, the nepeta’s seeded everywhere,” she says when we arrive, “also the asters. We’ll need to work on that today. There’s also tons of ash tree seedlings.”
“Ah, the asters.” Hattie winks at me. “I call ’em pain-in-the-asters.”
I find that while Jill delights in letting plant-Latin roll effortlessly off her tongue she also speaks Slang-lish; she says “bitchin’” a lot, like Hattie, but her favorite expression is “killer,” as in “those were some killer pachysandra.”
It’s clear Jill and Hattie are tight. They both wear Teva sandals, and carry matching Hori Hori knives Jill ordered through Horticulture magazine, in their matching ladies’ size leather tool belts. I can’t help but be a little envious of their relationship.
The client’s home is palatial, with a huge, water-sucking front and back lawns of green, lush Kentucky bluegrass, something I find disgusting in our time of drought. Flowers and shrubs border the lawn on all sides, and a tree-filled wild area sits at the back of the property. Hattie says she’s found bear poop out there before and, last spring, a swarm of bees clinging to a tree branch. She also says it’s a good place to squat and pee if you have an emergency, since we won’t be using the facilities at the house.
I ponder that for a millisecond. I don’t think so. While I’m not fearful of wildlife, I don’t want to be spied pissing in someone’s backyard.
We spend four hours weeding.
The end of the morning finds us on top of a stuccoed cement wall, pulling up ash tree seedlings.
“Damn, this bra is killing me,” says Hattie, tugging at the bottom of hers. “Women shouldn’t be trussed up like a turkey.”
When I get home I feel good, but tired. Spending most of the day out in the fresh air is wonderful.
* * *
This morning I work for another gardener. Kate is Hattie’s friend and a brilliant garden designer. She asked Hattie if she could spare someone and Hattie asked if I was interested. I know Kate and I like her; I said sure.
We labor hard at a beautiful hotel, beginning with planting five gallon shrubs all morning long.
The second task is climbing to the top of a fifteen-foot ladder leaning on a stone wall, with five-gallon buckets of soil that probably weigh about thirty pounds. We dump the soil at the top. Heights-neurotic that I am, I’m terrified at the prospect of doing this; luckily one of the younger workers, a British girl, doesn’t mind standing on the ladder while we bring the buckets to her. The fair-haired Brit has a nasty sunburn by the time we leave.
At the end of the day Kate tells me that she’ll pay me the fifteen dollars per hour, the wage Hattie gives me, but only for today. She says she’d love for me to work for her again but, in the future can only offer $12. She tells me the other women working for her, including one who is over 40 and has to drive sixty miles round trip to work each day, receive only ten dollars an hour for this back-breaking/no benefits/no healthcare work. With no hard feelings, I realize that to her, I’m just a glorified hole digger and bucket hauler. I’m not doing anything the untrained can’t do. The saddest part of it is $12 is not a bad wage, in this city, for this type of work. But it’s a survival-only wage. My husband is also a contractor, heating and air conditioning, and this is a big reason we’ve never hired anyone; it would be almost impossible to pay them decently and we couldn’t offer benefits (vacation pay, sick pay, health insurance) that we ourselves do not enjoy. I’m subcontracting out my labor as a gardener, and it’s just not going to be worth it to work for Kate again.
* * *
Today I work with the whole crew, comprised of Hattie, Jill, and two younger women who also work part time, usually on the days I’m off. We crawl over a high, rounded garden bed near a driveway, fill in the few bare spots with new perennials. I’ve only been a professional gardener for a couple of weeks and I’m still self-conscious. I’m regularly asking Hattie how she does things, what’s her technique.
The plants we put in today are bigger than usual, quart size, and we move the thick mulch and dig the holes. There’s always a significant mound of soil next to the newly planted addition, in a little pile beside the mulch.
“What should I do with all the extra soil?” I ask. I realize it’s a stupid question, but can’t help myself, everything is so meticulously groomed.
Hattie laughs out loud. “I’m going to give you an Indian name, ‘Extra Soil.’ Just smooth it around.” I’m grateful she doesn’t comment on how uptight I am.
Later she tells me how happy she is I’m working for her. She compliments everyone on a daily basis. It’s the first time I’ve experienced this behavior in a “boss,” a word Hattie hates. She refers to all of us as gardening goddesses.
* * *
Hattie doesn’t usually pick me up until 9:00, at the earliest, and we don’t get to the first garden till after 9:30. I hate getting to the job so late. It feels like I’m not getting enough done at home in the morning, and then, by the time I get home again in the afternoon, I’m worn out. I’d prefer to go out early in the morning, when it’s cooler, but Hattie says the clients don’t like us to arrive until after 9 A. M. La dee da, I think, who cares if the gardeners have to work in more uncomfortable, hotter conditions?
Hattie and I dig a new bed together at a home I hadn’t worked at before, a house they call the “Pink House” because the owner has a preference for pink flowers.
I ask her about rabbit hutches. My husband’s building one for our daughters’ new rabbit, Oscar, and I’m wondering about size. Hattie’s kept rabbits for years. She rhapsodizes about bunny manure; it’s the best, it’s low in nitrogen so can be put right in the garden and won’t burn plants.
“He should make it big,” she says of the hutch, while popping out a dandelion.
“It is.” I rip out a bindweed vine.
“Real big.” She grins wickedly. “A big ass hutch.”
I laugh and echo her, “Yeah, a big ass hutch.” We snicker together under our straw hats, Heh hehheh, sounding like the female horticultural version of Beavis and Butthead.
I bought one of the leather tool belts, trying to fit in with Hattie and Jill I suspect, but I don’t like it. Every time I crouch down, a tool pokes or juts out at me. And, as a person who won’t leave home without at least some makeup on, it feels a little butch. I’ve gone back to carrying my tools in a bucket and leaving them, now and then, scattered like rose petals, on the job site.
* * *
Today I’m edging a huge flower bed, going along with a shovel, slicing out pieces of sod that are creeping in too close, shaking out the grass from the soil, making a pile of Pennisetum for the compost pile. The owner doesn’t like the black plastic lawn edging so it’s all done manually. Hattie reminds me to switch legs periodically, telling me she blew out one of her knees with the shovel work.
I’m enjoying the gardening, but I can honestly say I’m not too impressed with the neighborhood. While I admire much of the architecture and all of the beauty, it all seems too big, much too big, for so few people. I had a brief experience with poverty as a child. After my mom and dad divorced, my twenty-something mom, me (then seven years old), and three younger siblings lived on welfare for a few years. We drank reconstituted powdered milk, ate “govm’t” cheese and canned chicken. Once we received Christmas presents through a charity, including (this was the early 1970s), a used stuffed animal, a donkey. The donkey was adorable but I remember being repulsed. Spending a winter using an outhouse and sharing heated bathwater in a big metal tub by a fireplace is something that only sounds romantic. And you never forget. Seeing all this entitlement and grandiose living feels like a cockle-burr, snagged on the hem of my worn out jeans, prickling me now and again.
* * *
(Stay tuned for Part II next week.)