A Perennial Bed



The speed limit was forty-five and I ignored it, willing the engine faster, letting the wind coming through the open car window dry my tears.  I take to the car when we argue, and on the back roads of Albemarle County, I look for peace.

I was three miles this side of Afton when I spotted a flowerbed in the distance. I slowed.  Purple iris and deep pink peonies bloomed. Poppies, with fuzzy, bent-head buds, were ready to burst their splashes of red.  The terraced hillside, bordered by river rock, was more shades of green than color. Tall, spiked Yucca leaves pointed skyward from the lower patch, while a low-growing ground phlox spread patches of pink and lavender throughout its new growth across the top.  Here and there, tall Johnson grass and chic weed sprouted.  I had a sudden impulse to stop the car, kneel there at the side of the road, and pull the weeds.  It surprised me. I’m not a gardener like my Grandma was.

She tended a perennial garden.  I always thought her toil was wasted for only little bits of color throughout the summer. She spent hours weeding, pruning, thinning, digging and transplanting roots, shoots, tubers, and little scraps of green. Her slight form, draped in a house dress bent over her progeny.  She knew every one by name, which came from bad seed and which from good.  Her apron pocket collected seeds; her straw hat protected her from freckles.  

She didn’t have a driver’s license, so when she and Grandpa had words, he took to the truck and went fishing. She grabbed her hat and fled to her flowers.  She knelt there bare-handed, wielding a trowel, tearing at weeds, turning soil.

I pulled over to the side of the road and parked the car.  I took my camera and photographed peonies, a pink rose and a mock orange. I laid on the ground, eye level with violets and snapped away, imagining myself lost in their purple.  

“You alright young lady?” a shaky voice asked above me.

I turned my head in the direction of the voice and saw a pair of legs wrapped in cotton stockings. The sun was setting and as I looked up, I had to shield my eyes from the glare.  The old lady wore a snap up duster printed with a profusion of hydrangea blossoms.

“Oh,” I said. “I’m fine.  I just saw your garden and couldn’t help myself. I had to stop and take some pictures.”

“I thought something had happened to you. First the car stopped and then you was out here laying on the ground. Scared me. I called to Harold and told him to come quick.”

“I’m sorry I frightened you.  I should have come to your door and asked permission.”

“Oh, it’s OK.  Got our hearts going good though, didn’t it honey?” she said.

“Sure did,” a gruff voice said from behind her.

I got to my feet and held out my hand to the woman. “My name’s Margaret-Dawn.  I live in Crozet.”

“I’m Ruby, and this here’s Harold.”

I shook both their hands and then turned my attention back to the flower bed.  “Your perennials are lovely. It takes a lot of hard work.”

“Labor of love,” Ruby said.

“Sometimes, I think she loves these bloomers better than she loves me,” Harold said, laughing.

“Now you know you spend as much time in that vegetable garden of yours as I do in my flowers,” she countered.

“Guess she’s right,” he said.  “I won’t argue anyway. No use. She always wins.”

She reached up to pat his cheek a little bit harder than she needed to.  “And don’t you forget it,” she said with a smile.

The two of them walked with me around the plants, talking about this one and that, who gave them the shoots or bulbs, how they’d pilfered slips off flowers they saw on the side of the road on a trip, how they’d rooted shoots in soda bottles, and collected heirloom seeds. Harold remembered how much he paid for the “Ruby Rose” he’d given his wife for her birthday one year.  “Paid double for it because I wanted the one with her name on it.”

“Prettiest rose you ever saw too, ain’t it?” she teased.

“My grandma had a garden like this,” I said.

“You grow flowers?” Ruby asked me.

I didn’t tell her that it had always seemed like too much work to me. I didn’t have the heart. “I have a few,” I said.

“Well, let’s just fix that,” she said.  “Harold, go to the shed and get one of those boxes with the pots in it. Let’s fix this girl up.”

“Oh no, please don’t go to that trouble.  I was just admiring…”

“Nonsense girl, no trouble at all. I’m tickled you thought they was pretty enough to stop with your camera.  Now let’s see what you’re gonna need.”

Harold came with the box of pots and some soda bottles filled with water.  Ruby picked and plucked, planted shoots and snipped pieces to put in water to root.  I took a piece of paper from my purse and wrote the names of my new charges, lily of the valley, hasta, coreopsis, ground phlox and tall phlox, coneflower, and catmint.

Harold opened a brown paper lunch bag and I peered inside. “Now there’s some peonies, daffodil, crocus and daylily bulbs in here.  They’re all mixed up together, but you can sort ‘em by size and shape. Don’t take a gardener to tell the difference. There’s also a little bag of poppy, black eyed susan, and daisy seeds.”

As I loaded my new garden into the backseat of the car, I thanked Ruby and Harold for being so kind and generous.

“We’re happy to do it,” Harold said. “You just make sure the next time you stop to admire somebody’s garden, you warn ‘em first and don’t give old people like us heart attacks.”

I dropped my head. “I’m so sorry I scared you,” I said. “I’ll be sure to warn the next people.”

“Good girl,” Harold said.

“You take some pictures when you get these started now,” Ruby said. “Then stop back by and visit us.”

I assured them I would as I turned the car around and headed back home with purpose, but under the speed limit this time.

As I pulled into the driveway, my cell phone rang. It was Bruce.

“How does fresh trout sound for supper?” He asked with a hint of apology in his voice.

“Good,” I said in a brighter voice than I would normally extend.  “I can grill them outside while you till my flower garden.”

“What flower garden?” he asked.

“Did I ever tell you about my grandma’s perennial bed?” I asked.

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