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 crew spends the morning at the name-brand heiress’ home. I hear her and Hattie argue twice. The first time is over some perennials Madeline bought mail order from an expensive East Coast nursery.
They’re standing over the tiny plants (that Hattie and Jill planted personally two weeks ago) and Madeline says, “I just don’t understand why they’re not doing better.”
“Madeline, they’re fine,” says Hattie. “They’ve only been in two weeks. They have to establish their root system in the new soil before they’ll start having top growth.”
This does not please the heiress. “They’re just so small. I’m not happy with them.”
“You could have bought bigger plants locally, for less money,” says Hattie, and I cringe. It’s Hattie’s buy-local-think-global policy; she’s not able to resist. “And they would have been acclimated too.”
Madeline tosses her well-coiffed head. “I suppose.”
Later, when it’s almost time to leave, Hattie introduces me to Madeline, telling her I’m “a Master Gardener.” This pleases Madeline and she smiles graciously, as do I. I return the Osmocote to the potting shed and run to the back to look for my bypass pruners. Two minutes later I’m back, and find the ladies still standing in the driveway.
“I buy them small, because when you buy a smaller plant, you’re going to have a healthier plant,” I hear Hattie explain. I notice the object of the conversation is the gallon-sized plant she’s holding in one hand, a foot-tall lavender-bloomed clematis that was planted earlier in the trellised area near the driveway.
“I would just like a bigger one,” says Madeline.
“It won’t take that long for it to grow once it becomes established,” Hattie insists. “I guarantee you it will catch up.” She smiles at Madeline and I see she’s decided to turn on her considerable charm. “Now, what would you rather have, a healthier plant or instant gratification?”
The pause is not as long as a gnat’s ass. “Instant gratification,” Madeline says. She smiles back at Hattie when she says it, then looks over at me, and I feel a certain naughty (and guilty) admiration for her. Hattie looks dejected.
In the truck, Hattie tells me that Madeline is having all the perennials she special-ordered from some “Fancy East Coast Flower Farm” pulled out. She is seething.
Zora and Lily had a great time with their dad today, as if I haven’t spent the last decade of my life being their personal entertainment center and doting, loving, 24/7 momma. I even read them all the Harry Potter books—out loud. What gratitude. Andy’s dinner was very good, too.
Jill and I get into a disagreement over a plant identification at one of her gardens. She’s been bounding around happily for the last two hours, fine tuning whilst I weed, like she’s in a personal paradise she created with one hand tied behind her back. I am jealous; she’s younger, in charge, doesn’t have children to pine for while she toils. She says a plant is fernleaf yarrow, I say it’s tansy. The plant isn’t in bloom. I remark on the pungent foliage, and smartly share my knowledge that the word tansy comes from the French word for “nose-twister.” I’ve got one in my yard.
“It’s a fernleaf yarrow!” Jill’s exasperated, and I feel oddly satisfied that I have irritated her. This is not like me.
I look the plant up that evening. Jill’s right, it is fernleaf yarrow. My feelings for Jill are mixed. I like her and I don’t. She seems to have all the answers, her compass confidently pointing to a direction of business ownership and independence at such a young age, when I’m rapidly approaching middle age and I can’t really tell where the hell it is I’m headed, though I am beginning to worry it may be an entire life of scraping by and not knowing what it is, beside mothering, that I’m supposed to be doing.
Andy’s teased me numerous times about how I can’t seem to settle on anything. I’ve investigated becoming an interior designer, tried my hand at journalism, thought about opening a tea shop. Doctor, lawyer, Indian chief, what the hell is it that I am meant for? I love writing and gardening more than anything and so many things hold me in rapt fascination. Motherhood has been my priority, and will be always, but now that the girls are growing older we both need more independence. I know I shouldn’t cling too tightly, but at the same time I know these years will not last. I don’t like being away from them.
Jill’s lucky. She knows more about gardening than I do, and even had the good fortune to be raised by gardeners. Not only mom, but grandma too! I had to learn it all on my own. No one to guide me down the primrose path. I suspect Hattie likes Jill better too–how could she not? My darker side sees Jill as a little know-it-all, still-wet-behind-the-ears, smartass. My truthful side says I’m the one being a jerk.
We’re at a surgeon’s home and it’s one of the most beautiful gardens so far. There’s a pool in the backyard and bursting, blooming, lovely English cottage style beds all around, designed and planted by the missus, a highly-educated, likeable, down-to-earth woman.
She chats with us and I learn she enjoys shopping at Walmart and Home Depot for plants. That stops me. All this and . . . Walmart? She’s the opposite of the franchise queen. Hattie and I refuse to shop at Walmart, knowing that low prices for some come at a steep price for others, namely American businesses and Walmart employees.
This garden would be a glorious place to weed indeed except for one thing. There’s dog shit everywhere, complements of an Orson Wells-sized retriever who stays in his kennel while we’re there (his imprisonment’s due to his excitable nature—if loose we’d all be humped).
There’s definitely something amiss about this dog because his urine, which is also everywhere, reeks.
As I weed, gingerly avoiding turds, longing for a tussy-mussy to hold to my nose, I wonder at the mess. While I am far from fastidious, this is beyond even my level of tolerance. I think, surely if these people can afford three gardeners to come out, at twenty dollars an hour apiece, can’t they afford to hire someone to pick up the dog shit?
At another garden one of the tasks include braiding daffodil foliage. The flowers are wilted and gone, the long green leaves of the daffodils are floppy and, I suppose, not pretty enough to display as is, and yet the bulb needs the energy garnered from those green leaves so they cannot be cut off. I feel absolutely ridiculous braiding daffodil foliage. For some reason it reminds me of extravagant pubic hair grooming, like when a relative told me she had her bush trimmed into a heart shape in celebration of Valentine’s Day.
We’re in Hades again, weeding together in a group, Hattie, Jill and I. June is also turning out to be the hottest on record and we’re getting bitchy. Hattie asks me what’s my astrological sign.
“Oh, Capricorn,” she says, lifting an eyebrow. “My mom’s a Capricorn, I know all about you.” Her tone is definitely on the smart-alecky side, with the tiniest hint of hostility, and I wonder what she’s getting at. She’s mentioned she and her mom have been at odds many times, over religion, politics, life in general.
“Well, what’s yours?”
Well, I’ll be damned, I think. My mom’s a Libra and I can see some similarities between Hattie and Mom, the perhaps just slightly too fun-loving, living-for-the-day attitude, the belief that their world view is the only world view.
“Ha,” I say, “I know all about you, too.”
A good day. I catch my first snakes and am stung by a wasp. I know it doesn’t sound good, but for me, Mrs. Wild at Heart, it was exciting. Both occur at The Remmick’s, a house with another big rock wall garden, two doors down from Hades. I dubbed it Hades II. In the morning, I spot a yellow jacket and tell Jill. Hattie says it’s probably nesting in the wall and the owner will spray because yellow jackets are aggressive. To verify this, within two minutes I’m stung, and endure a white-hot sensation on my wrist, but only for a few minutes. I feel rather proud of my ability to endure wasp-venom.
An hour later I notice the snake.
Jill’s nearby and I call her attention to it.
“Get it,” she says, and, not thinking, I snatch. My gloved hand comes back with two snakes. One about a foot long and the other a few inches smaller, both brilliant green with yellow stripes. My heart lurches but I don’t squeal.
Luckily, Jill has the weed bucket ready and I’m able to drop them in immediately. They slither up the bucket’s sides, frantically trying to escape. I squirm.
“Grab some weeds,” orders Jill. I gather some up from the drying pile on the lawn and drop them over the snakes. They chill out.
“See, they just want some cover.”
“Woo-wee!” says Hattie, who’s joined us.
Jill leaves to get a shirt, to tie over the top of the bucket with a bungee cord.
“My God,” I say. “I’ve never even held a snake before. It’s a good thing I had gloves on, or I wouldn’t have done it.”
Hattie chuckles. “Your eyes were pretty big. Jill will take them home, put them in her garden. It’s not a good idea to have them here. Annie next door, her boyfriend’s killed snakes before.”
“Ribbon snakes? Why?”
“Cause she’s terrified.”
“But they’re beneficial.”
“Tell that to someone standing on a lawn chair, screaming,” says Hattie. “Oh, by the way, sweetie, you’ve completed the second milestone that certifies you as a true gardener.”
I feel a kinship towards Jill. I would have loved to take the snakes home but my chickens would probably have made a meal of them.
We’re back in the Shitloads of Money area and I suspect Jill may have been smoking Mother Nature. She has that goofy, very-pleased-with-it-all look, and she’s admiring the bush clematis a little too much.
Suddenly I hear bells playing, “It’s a ‘Grand Ole’ Flag.’ ”
“Where’s that coming from?” I ask Hattie.
“Oh, it’s the carillon in the church, up on the hill. It plays each noon.”
“Does it always play that song?”
“Sure does,” says Hattie. She rolls her eyes.
The extra-happy gardener walks by and says, “Wow, isn’t that something?”
“You should of heard it earlier, Jill,” I say. “They played ‘Ain’t Nothin But a Hound Dog.’ ”
“Really?” she asks.
As they’d say in slang-lish, she is so stoned. I’m practically bubbly too, with a feeling of superiority. I would never arrive at a client’s house in such a condition, though I do remember smoking pot with my boss once, at Jill’s age, at work. Oh yeah, I also got pretty intoxicated with that same boss during a luncheon celebration on my 21st birthday. Perhaps I should lose the smugness.
I’ve been checking out starting my own gardening business during my days off and I found my second job today when I called a city office about getting a business license. The woman I spoke to said, “You’re a gardener? I need one.” We set an appointment. As with the other job, I don’t tell Hattie or Jill.
I’m at Mike’s again, by myself. It is yet another 90-degree-plus day. Maybe I should name this garden Hades III. After doing a lot of weeding her son drops by and says hi. He’s a nice, kind of a doughy, middle-aged guy. I think he’s in medicine. Mike has me cut down the poppies, telling me I can save the decorative seed heads if I like, then goes into the house. As I’m performing this task near their sliding glass doors I have this creepy feeling that I’m being watched.
The last thing I do is put up a trellis and try to attach the incredible mess that’s laying all over the ground that is a honeysuckle vine. I do the best I can, wrestling with the son-of-a-seed, but it ends up looking far from perfect. I stay a few minutes longer, but Mike’s a nice lady; I don’t mind, I want to finish the work. I don’t record it.
Hattie calls me that night and says Mike doesn’t want me to come over any more; she’d like another gardener. She says I took too long to cut down the poppies. I’m stunned. I’ve never been fired in my life. I didn’t dawdle. I wonder what happened. Did it irritate her that I liked her son’s contributions to the garden, or maybe she thought I was charging her for the extra time I spent there, or maybe I just spent too much time admiring her flowers (though I didn’t think so). She was hyper-aware of the time clock, that I know. I decide I probably just wasn’t nose to the grindstone enough. Or, maybe, I didn’t “know my place.”
After some smarting and squirming, I realize I can’t waste time caring about this. I am still happy about Mike’s gift of free plants.
The client/service thing is really getting under my skin. I’ve gone nearly a decade free as most can ever hope to be, and am now like a tiger lily stolen from the wild and crammed into a pot. I don’t like it. I fear I’m ruined for the work force, I’ll never be any good in the rat race. Even though this may signal an inevitable decline down the road, for now the awareness of this is sweet.
I complete my second freelance gardening job this weekend.
The woman’s name on the telephone was Iris, which I took as a good omen, and she lives alone in a newer neighborhood in a modest-sized house. When we meet I see she’s about fifty, pretty, quite feminine; her home is tastefully furnished. I admire her rose-patterned antique china in her antique oak hutch. She wants to start a garden, she’s sick of the grass, but doesn’t know a thing about the green world. She would like a couple of trellises with vines, and a planter on her front porch with perennials, ditto a small bed in back. I visit her grounds which include a patchy weed filled backyard and two small flower beds with feverfew seedlings and a few snapdragons. She covets her neighbor’s garden, an enclosed paradise of honeysuckle vines and roses. We visit it together.
I am unloosed to design this woman’s garden and during my ecstatic shopping excursion I buy in multiples of extra-feminine flowers: pasque flower, columbine, oriental poppy, salvia, ladies mantle, ‘Johnson’s Blue’ geranium, siberian iris, ‘Kent Beauty’ oregano, pink baby’s breath, ‘Husker Red’ penstemon, double hollyhocks, daylily, ‘Hidcote’ lavender and ‘Rose Queen’ salvia. Several roses: a dark rose and white Meideland for her porch, a ‘John Davis’ climbing rose for the new bed below her deck, and a ‘Fairy’ polyantha for a large pot. A few vines: clematis tangutica, Hall’s honeysuckle and trumpet creeper ‘Madame Galen’ will begin the softening of her fenced-in backyard. And of course, I add a few bags of soil amendment. I find a playdate for the girls on Saturday so Andy can help me haul two fan trellises for the fence and two trellis panels to cover and beautify the space below her back deck. He hangs them for me.
I love it.
I can see how I could develop my own business easily. Problem is, while I love creating gardens, I love writing, and being home, so much more. The seed of a green-hearted novel’s been germinating and now it’s demanding to be cultivated on paper. And it’s been almost a month since my girls got out of school. Even part time is too much time away.
On the day I begin creating childlike scenarios of intrigue with worms, dandelions, and bluegrass and then tiptoe through sexual-in-nature garden fantasies, I take a 12:40 pee break at the Shitloads of Money neighborhood gas station/convenience store. I drive my seven-year-old Taurus, and as I stop at the intersection right next to the store, a man, about to cross the street on foot, stops too. He waves my car on, his gestures grand. As I pull in the parking lot he walks by and says, “THANK YOU!”
His rudeness unsettles me. Was I supposed to insist he crossed before me? Oh, no sir, after you! As I dig for change in my purse a woman pulls up at the pumps. She’s young, blonde, skinny with huge boobs, in the biggest SUV money can buy this side of a Hummer. I’ve come across one of the area’s indigenous species, a trophy wife. She leaves the behemoth running while she darts into the store. Here it’s safe to leave a new vehicle running, door unlocked. No car thief would be so incredibly stupid in this part of town, where police service is probably almost instantaneous. I’m angry at the jerk at the crossroad and sorely want to pass it on to the trophy bride, to yell, “Hey, gas waster, turn off your damn engine!”
The community toilet that we gardening ladies share with all the gentlemen workers in the area (pool men, lawn mowing men, tree men, construction workers, a man for every need, nothing too great or small) is half-clogged. I won’t go into the disgusting, sickening details. I’m afraid to flush, but I’m near bursting, so I pee anyway, hovering. After I pull up my pants, I push down the handle and move away from the seatless toilet as fast as I can. The contents, thankfully, go down. My bile rises.
Our clients. Would it be too much to offer facilities at their homes, for their hired help who are busting their asses to make their lives more magically beautiful? Really, would an outhouse be too dear? I think how Hattie could make even an outhouse tres chic, covered with vines and roses. It would definitely be better than this communal shithole. Then I wonder why I’m wasting my time thinking about what the privileged should do.
That afternoon at the Rennick’s I share my idea. I’ve temporarily gotten over my shitty mood because at this house I have some company. I’m not all by myself, going crazy.
“Great idea,” Hattie says. “Only problem is, the workers would probably use it as a place to smoke pot.”
I hadn’t thought of that. So, who cares?
I bitch a little more and Hattie tells me that in all the years she’s been a gardener, she’s never gotten so much as a card on Christmas from the Shitloads of Money crowd.
By the second week in July, all the new installations have gone in, the flowerpots and hanging baskets and windowboxes have been filled. The weeds are under control. Now it’s just mind-numbing maintenance. Deadheading, endless weeding. I don’t want to be a hired gardener any more, and I’m a little doubtful I’ll ever start my own gardening business. It’s too hard physically, it’s too hard on the ego, and I don’t like being away from my daughters when they are home all day during the summer. Life’s too short. I tell Hattie that I’m going to leave, that I want to get back to writing and my family. She understands.
I feel liberated.
* * *
Postscript: February 12, the next year.
I had a physical legacy from the gardener-for-hire experiment, my right elbow ached for many months. Tennis elbow, from using a shovel, doing the manual lawn edging. It finally stopped this week. I can’t wait to get back to gardening this year, in my own garden.
I talked to Hattie last night. She said she didn’t last the summer with the heiress. The green grind also took its toll on Jill, and she decided in the fall to enroll in nursing school. She’s able to make enough through waitressing a few nights a week to pay the bills. Waitressing—another service job, but one that is lucrative compared to creating beauty and toiling in the soil. I’m sorry that things weren’t anywhere near as rosy for Jill as I had imagined.
Hattie says she’ll start looking for some more crew members in a month or so. She says she thinks gardening must be a calling, as there are many who try it and don’t stay with it. Only she’s reached those other milestones of the true gardener, ones that may forever remain a mystery to me.
* * *