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.
I’m planting annuals, salvia, petunias, lobelia, and dusty miller, in a long built-in planter at the top of a ten-foot-high brick wall on the side of a long driveway. It can only be reached by ladder. My fear of heights is kicked in again and I’m a little shaky but going about my business. I see a bee fly into a small hole in a brick below me. She leaves, then returns, and this time I move down to get a closer look. The bee’s carrying a perfectly round piece of leaf. I keep tabs on her and she comes out again, and flies away.
By the time she returns I’m very close, my face about a foot away from the hole’s entrance. I’m not worried about being stung as I know she’s working, and not concerned with me. As she positions herself for a landing, I get a micro-view. She’s holding the leaf with her thin, long for a bee, legs. The leafy green rug’s partially rolled up, so it’ll fit in the hole. I watch her as she hovers for a few more moments, wings beating rapidly. She’s about the same size as a honeybee, stout, hairy, and has a metallic blue cast. She completely ignores me, so intent is she on her work. It’s like a TV nature show, a micro-view of one infinitesimal part of nature, but a million times better. It’s the coolest thing I’ve witnessed in a garden yet.
Hattie tells me later I’ve seen a leafcutter bee. They cut precise circles and ovals out of leaves for their long, tunnel-like nests. The ovals line the bottom and sides. They lay one egg per cell, provision each with a mixture of nectar and pollen, and cap each cell with a circle of green.
By Bob Peterson “from North Palm Beach, Florida, Planet Earth!” via Wikimedia Commons
“When you see rose leaves with these perfect holes in them, it’s the leafcutter,” Hattie says. “They cause some damage, but not enough to get worked up about. What’s really cool about it all, is that the first egg they lay, the oldest one in the far back of the tunnel, is the last to come out.”
I admire the leafcutter for her industriousness. Later I look it up on the Internet and find out the leafcutter, of the Megachile species, are natives. They’re important pollinators, not aggressive, have a mild sting (milder than honeybees and wasps) that’s only a threat when they are handled. Our Colorado entomological expert, Whitney Cranshaw, writes: “Leafcutter bees are solitary bees, meaning that they don’t produce colonies . . . Instead, individual female leafcutter bees do all the work of rearing.”
We’re on the east side of town, in an upper middle-class neighborhood. The house next door to our client’s is a tacky Southern cliché on “having arrived;” blindingly white fluted columns (I’m guessing metal) on a Georgian-style brick house sitting in front of an endless void of Kentucky green front lawn studded with white urns, fake flowers, and a Rococo, waterless fountain. All that’s missing is a big Cadillac.
Hattie refers to the client next door, where we’ll be working, by her first name, Annie. Annie’s a gynecologist. In the back garden is a patio and small lawn, the running ground for two amiable terriers, and a koi pond, covered with netting to protect the prize fishes from the occasional hungry blue heron. A huge rock garden surrounds it all. It’s built into the surrounding hill, a terraced stone wall topped by an upper garden of boulders and flowers and backed by a parched meadow, a perfect habitat for rattlesnakes.
The day is warm for this time of year, in the upper 80’s. We’ve been drinking a lot of water and I’m thankful Annie has welcomed us to use her bathroom facilities, so we won’t have to go at the nearby 7-Eleven. This is a different neighborhood, though; in the Broadmoor we always have to go to the convenience store.
I’m thinking of calling this the Hades garden. On top of the rock wall it’s hot and dry, and our weeding, started in different areas, has over the last two hours eventually brought us together. We squat at the top of the property, among the delphinium, yucca, lupine, and soon-to-be scorching stones. I’m the first to finish and when I stand up my head swims.
“Whoa, I just got a head rush.”
Hattie and Jill find this amusing.
“She just got a twirly,” says Jill.
“Congratulations,” says Hattie. “Having a twirly is one of the milestones in becoming a gardener.”
After some shrub pruning, we gather our tools to leave. Hattie points out a red-tailed hawk soaring above us in the cloudless sky, and I wonder if they’re a threat to the koi.
One of a hired gardener’s perks is being able to keep anything they have to weed out. I always defer to Hattie and Jill, but have still scored some coreopsis, pain-in-the-aster, Knautia macedonica (red pincushion flower; Hattie calls them “naughty-uh” because of their fecundity), hollyhocks, and even a tiny tree, an Arborvitae Hattie potted up personally and presented to me like a gift.
It makes me feel Robin Hoody; taking from the rich. Hattie nurtures orphans in her own garden, gives them to garden club members and to the church where we hold our monthly garden club meetings. Most of the time, though, she relocates them to another of her clients’ gardens as freebies. I’m astonished at her non-capitalistic commune with nature through gardening and don’t think I’d be so generous.
We meet at the greenhouse with the garden club members. Hattie’s multi-tasking, picking out annuals for both our club’s plant sale and for her clients. I’m thrilled because I’m indulging in my all time favorite gardening task, shopping. I buy several flats at wholesale prices, an orgy of annuals.
Hattie and Jill buy a truckload for their clients. Jill raves over some parti-colored striped petunias, hot pink and white, white and dark purple. I think they look circus-like, but keep my opinion to myself.
Later in the day, one of Hattie’s favorite clients, a nice sixty-something woman who lives in a Spanish-colonial style townhouse near the Garden of the Gods, goes ga-ga over the petunias Jill picked out.
We spend a good part of the day at an out-of-town nursery that specializes in herbs. I’m in plant lust mode again, buying herbs and perennials at $1 each for a 2 ½” pot. There are seven different types of basil—Thai, Siam Queen, African Blue, globe, purple leafed, lemon, Genovese; five types of scented geraniums, and oh, so much more!
Hattie wears short shorts and a tank top, her hair up in a ponytail. She’s trying to even out, as she calls it, her “gardener’s tan,” a white-torsoed tan similar to the farmer’s version. Hattie’s legs are gorgeous, but her impressive breasts, I’m guessing “DD,” are slightly more on the side of Venus of Willendorf than Venus de Milo. Hattie doesn’t give a damn. I admire Hattie’s uninhibited, I-am-beautiful attitude, one that I can only achieve when under the influence of a significant amount of alcohol. Hattie declares herself a primitive, and once told me she would love to live an aboriginal life.
This evening Hattie calls to get my hours—she also pays on time. We bitch about the sprawl in Colorado Springs and she comments about the developers who run our city, “That’s their job. Sucking up beautiful places and spitting out shit.”
Hattie seems to genuinely adore most of her clients. This morning we weed and plant ‘Lemon gem’ marigolds at an elderly man’s modest ranch-style house. The home seems to be suburban-boring until I see a contemporary bronze fountain in the back pond. Hattie calls him “sweetie.” One of many.
I notice a fledgling robin hopping around the yard, crying to its mother, who delivers food to him. “He’ll be fine,” says Hattie, “unless a cat comes by.”
In the afternoon we’re met by the whole crew, plus two more, an older man and woman Hattie hired specifically for the occasion, to plant a truckload of gallon-sized stop-sign colored geraniums in the front of a huge home in a gated community.
We tour the conifer garden, which is expansive and sculptural with only a few flowers. Hattie calls the owner by her first name, Madeline. Madeline is whip-thin, and her pretty, somewhat waxy features remind me of a well-preserved orchid, a prom-queen from ages past. Hattie’s sure she’s had plastic surgery. Madeline’s not a gardener, she’s a designer, which means she does all the shopping and directing of where-to-put-what. Hattie tells me of some expensive cast-offs she’s received from her, purchases Madeline decided she “didn’t quite like” once she got home.
This is the first garden I’ve visited that bespoke major design savvy. Madeline’s garden is Oriental-influence-done-right. Every tree, shrub and flower is carefully placed, meticulously groomed and pampered. It’s the antithesis of how Hattie and I roll; we tend toward the “wild and wooly” as Hattie calls it. I prefer to think of it as gardening with Nature and letting Nature keep the upper hand.
We begin planting the geraniums and it isn’t long before I notice that Madeline’s holding an animated conversation with Hattie.
Madeline goes inside and Hattie walks over. She’s holding a plastic jar of Osmocote, the time-release fertilizer that comes in tiny beige balls, and some measuring spoons. “Have you guys been putting Osmocote in the planting holes?” she asks.
Cindy and I shake our heads. “I didn’t know we were supposed to,” I say.
“Well, that’s what Madeline wants. We’re going to have to take them all out and put a rounded teaspoonful in each hole.”
“Geez,” I say, “what is she, the Osmocote heiress?”
“No,” say Hattie. She names a famous electronics company and tells me Madeline’s the heiress of that.
We go to Mike’s today for the first time. Mike’s a she, the sixty-something widow of a military officer. She’s kind of brusque, but I like her. I’m in love with her garden. It’s on a hillside, has incredible diversity, and is xeric. I see a lot of plants that I haven’t seen in other gardens and covet a bronze Buddha nestled among poppies. Mike’s middle-aged son lives with her, as do two small, barking terriers. Hattie leaves Cindy and me there and we weed for three hours.
My friend Susan calls me that evening and asks if I’d like to do a gardening job for a friend of hers, an elderly lady who lives downtown. She has a Spanish colonial-style house, with a built-in planter running down the entire length that needs to be filled with annuals. Susan usually does it for her but she’s too busy this year. Would I call her?
I do; and make a date for my very first contract work!
This morning we’re spreading mulch. I get to the job at 9:30 A.M. and have to wait for Hattie and crew for twenty minutes. I’m irritated, thinking about how I could be home, working in my own garden instead of sitting here not getting paid. It’s supposed to be a 90-degree day. When Cindy, another of Hattie’s gardeners, pulls up, the owner, a rake thin, 40ish man comes out and greets us.
He leads us up the long driveway to the house. On the way, I spy a small weed tree sapling, a Siberian elm, notorious in these parts, among the border of shrubs and trees leading up the driveway. Reflexively, I reach down and pull it out.
The owner stops, turns to face me. He’s angry. “Why did you do that?”
“It was a weed tree.”
His manner is icy and he speaks slowly, as if instructing a child, “I would appreciate it if you didn’t remove anything without my permission.”
I seethe in silence, thinking, here I am, a master gardener with a B.A., getting chewed out by a homeowner for plucking out a goddamn weed.
It doesn’t get any better. The truck ’o mulch arrives as does Hattie, Jill, Cindy, and another woman whom I’ve never met—just as it starts getting nice and toasty. We have three wheelbarrows. The assembly line begins. We take turns standing on the truckload of mulch, pitchforking the barrows full, and pushing them up the long, steep driveway, around to the back of the house, through the trees, to dump and spread among a stand of white pines.
Back and up, back and up, over and over. It takes us two hours at a fast clip and I don’t know how many trips. It’s fun in a way because we kind of get into this competitive thing, where we’re hustling, passing each other like we’re in a relay, grinning—“hey, look at me, top this.”
I keep asking Cindy if she’s okay; she’s so red-faced she looks like she’s going to pass out, but Hattie says mine is the same. “Are you Irish?” she asks Cindy. Cindy doesn’t understand at first and thinks it may be a put-down, about liking to drink or something, but then Becky says it’s a Celtic trait–to get so obviously flushed when exerted. She’s of Celtic origin too. This may help to explain our shared pagan leanings.
Meanwhile, The Marquis de Sod, Supreme Protector of Weed Trees, is standing in the shade, watching four attractive, dressed-for-summer women haul wheelbarrow loads up and down his driveway, nearly collapsing from heat exhaustion. I sense he’s enjoying himself.
The job for the lady downtown worked out perfectly. I spent Saturday morning buying plants and soil amendment, and I finished it all in one afternoon. It was fun and I made a nice profit. It is so much better being the boss, no matter how perfect your boss may be.
We work in another big money garden today. There’s extensive construction going on with the house, adding a new wing to the thousands of square footage already in existence. More weeding, planting of annuals.
As Hattie and I drive homeward, we debate the relative differences of garden tours in her artsy-fartsy, celebrating-diversity neighborhood, where the gardeners are the sole workers and designers, and those in this neighborhood. Our garden club’s tour is coming up and we’re featuring gardens tended by the club’s professional gardeners. Most of the gardens will be in this exclusive section of town.
“The difference,” Hattie says, “is that here you get to see what shitloads of money can do for a garden.”
“Maybe we should call it the ‘Shitloads of Money’ tour.”
Hattie says that if we had a serious job we’d probably get into trouble together.
It’s another hot day. We’ve had the hottest May in the city’s recorded history, and it looks like June is going to be a scorcher too. Hattie says global warming is undeniable, those who work close to nature have been seeing changes for years. I get up early to water some plants in my own garden and to let the chickens out while everything’s dewey and cool and inside the family’s still sleeping. As I walk by a trellis, I see a bee’s been slumbering in a poppy and is now crawling out, damp and dew covered. I’ve heard that if bees are gathering nectar and pollen and it gets too late to return to the hive they’ll sleep in a flower. She’s unable to fly away until she’s dry. I feel blessed to witness this.
I work the morning alone in one of the gardens. Hattie’s sent me over to remove a big patch of King Alfred daffodils. She wants to save the bulbs and I’m to put them in trash bags for her.
The King Alfreds are deeply embedded in eighteen inches of muck. I can’t believe they are down so deep, that it is so frigging wet. Every time I put the shovel in to pry them out there is a tremendous sucking sound and the gigantic mound resists me, like they’re stuck in glue. It takes me over an hour to do a 5 x 8 foot patch, I’m soon wearing platform-mud heels, and I’m cursing under my breath. The water these places use, in a drought, is incredible, it’s a bog! When I tell Hattie about the experience, with the instruction “don’t ever send me on a job like that again,” she finds it hilarious.
The afternoon is spent at the Hades garden, where at one point, Hattie accidentally breaks off a daylily bud.
“Darn,” she says. Then she eats it and says, “yum.” I notice she’s wearing her wooden, dangling, peace-sign earrings.
Before we leave, Hattie dusts everything, not with fairy-dust, but with Feathermeal, the deer-keep away product. I have never smelled anything so god-awful in my life—it’s worse than shit, it’s worse than skunk, it’s worse than fish emulsion; it’s like the ground up, rotting entrails of the most vile sea/land/air creatures imaginable. I can’t see how she bears it.
Hattie says it’s made out of “chicken parts.”
On the way home she stops at a 7-Eleven to wash up and asks me if I need anything. When she comes back to the truck she’s got a paper container holding a corn dog, dripping in nacho cheese sauce product. “Sorry,” she says, “but I was starving.” I’m amazed at Hattie’s penchant for junk food.
Hattie sends me to Mike’s alone today. As Mike shows me where to work, I comment on a Salvia argentea, a huge, hairy-leafed, silver plant now at its rosette stage. Mike says, “Oh, Monty bought that.” She says it in a dismissive way that bothers me, the same tone she used when I commented on some interesting pavers that Monty bought. I think it’s cool her son’s into gardening, and feel sort of sorry for him, that his mom’s so prickly.
I weed for a couple of hours in the 90-plus degree heat, then take a thirty-minute lunch break for an iced cappuccino. I’m filthy when I walk in the coffee shop, covered in dirt and sweat, but I feel good, fully endorphin-ized by the sun and work.
Mike offers some orange hawkweed I’m digging out of her beds, and some other weed, I think it’s a malva. “The only name I know it by is “devil’s paintbrush,” she says of the hawkweed. “I brought it from back East, where it grows wild all over the place. They say it’s a terrible weed, but it’s easy to pull up, I don’t think it’s bad at all.” The plant has a low, mounded, hairy-leafed base with thin ten-inch stems that shoot up and are topped by a burnt orange flower cluster. It’s sculptural, interesting. Mike’s like the flower’s base, short, stocky, with short hair. She’s interesting too, but, like the weed, not easy to interpret.
She comes out to tell me when it’s time to leave, and seems concerned when I don’t pack up right away. I finish the area I’m working in, about ten more minutes, and I don’t mark it on my card, figuring it would be a nice way to show my gratitude for the pass-alongs. It’s been a lonely morning, in a stranger’s garden, but I’m excited about the free weeds.
My daughters, Zora, age nine, and Lily, six, have been out of school for almost a week. They hardly miss me at all. They’re having a grand time hanging out with Dad, and he with them. The house is about at the same stage of decay as it usually is, so I can’t claim things are going to hell.
Years ago, when we were first married, Andy stayed home for a year working on our first home, a Victorian-era house so dilapidated my mom said she wept after her first visit. I know Andy’d like to have the freedom I’ve enjoyed for the last decade, working at home. I’m surprised at my own feelings of antsy-ness and how I miss them all, like they’re having a party that I am not invited to.
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