We called them “johnny jump ups,” and they were the first things I ever learned to plant. I must have been eight or ten, because I was old enough to be given my own little patch of garden, but the patch was in front of the house that we left when I was eleven. My mother had bought a flat of viola seedlings for herself, and she designated some for me. I dug some holes and stuck the violas in the ground.
And there they stayed. I don’t remember watering them or feeding them or deadheading them or weeding the patch. Maybe my mother did these things, but she was the sort of mother who expected me to take care of my own tasks or face the natural consequences of my neglect. I do remember the flowers being there all summer long, their cheerful little purple faces never reproaching me.
Gardens didn’t mean a lot. I lived just metres away from a field of deciduous trees, overgrown with lady slippers, forget-me-nots and wild strawberries. This was far more interesting than a tended patch of yard. I passed through the field almost every day, on my way to and from the nearest corner store – we called it “the little store” – or because a friend and I decided to go play “adventure.” It wasn’t possible to have an “adventure” on the lawn. You had “adventures” in spots where you might come across anything at all, buried under the grass or hidden behind a pincherry tree.
In my memory, when my friends and I went to play in that field, or when I walked through it to “the little store” to buy Hickory Sticks or cigarettes for my parents, no one else was ever there. Sometimes there was a sign that someone HAD been there. We occasionally found an abandoned baseball or a crushed candy wrapper. Once we discovered a rain-battered pile of porn magazines. But in the six years I spent playing in that field, I don’t remember ever running into a person who hadn’t come there with me.
Now I live in the middle of the city. There are parks. I’m near the St. Lawrence River, and can walk along it for miles in relative quiet if I want to, surrounded by trees and bicycle paths. But: “relative quiet.” Someone always comes along. I never know who that someone might be. This kind of adventure does not appeal to me.
However, I also have a house with a tiny yard in front, and another tiny yard in back. No one else can come into these yards if I don’t invite them. This spring will be the first I spend in this house, and I have no idea what might pop out of the earth, what I might find snuggled under the hostas or behind the two dwarf spruce.
Beyond those surprises, I get to choose my own adventure. I’ve purchased an abundance of seed packets. They’re mostly vegetables, but there are also some flowers: cosmos, nasturtiums, poached-egg plants, rudbeckia. I don’t really know what will happen when I put them in the ground. This is all new to me.
Only after I’d placed my seed orders did I think of violas. There’s plenty of time – we had a two-foot snowfall today, so the garden’s in no hurry; I could pick up some seeds or seedlings when it’s possible to actually plant something. But I feel little to no inclination to buy violas. They were fine, but not as fat and velvety as pansies, not as sweet and wistful as forget-me-nots, not as shocking as bleeding hearts. Maybe, once I’ve seen the garden go through its first cycle, I’ll notice a spot under the birch or along the fence where violas would be perfect next year. For now, when there are so many things to grow, why would I choose something I’ve already planted?
I am not, nor have I ever been, sentimental. When those first violas finally died, I didn’t feel sad; there were too many horsechestnuts to smash and too many crabapples to pick. I didn’t know that the day would come when I would search my whole new city for an empty, lonely field full of wildflowers, and discover that there is no longer any such thing.
Luckily, I have a spot where I can build one myself. Luckily, when it comes to growing a garden, even the things you choose yourself are bound to be full of surprises.
Image by Lekki