The Dirt: What makes a gardener?

I don’t just like gardening—I love it. And on that basis, I call myself a gardener. (My dictionary backs me up on this, defining the word as “a person who likes or is skilled at working in a garden.” No particular skill level required.) In fact, I believe my passion gives me a leg up on those folks who might be skilled but fall short on the enjoyment part. As Paul writes in Corinthians, “and now these three remain, faith, hope and love, but the greatest of these is love.” Love trumps all—and I am a gardener.

Dog Latin: Canis platypus in his natural setting. Courtesy Cinthia Milner

I didn’t always grant myself that title. When I first started dating my future husband, a forester with a degree from N.C. State, we would go for long hikes in the woods during which he would rattle off the Latin names of all the trees and wildflowers. At the time, it left stars in my eyes; now I would call him a “nomenclature showoff.”

Having grown up with gardeners—though they would never have called themselves that; their job was simply to put food on the table for another year—the only plant names I ever heard were the common ones. Marigolds were marigolds; pole beans were pole beans, and they were preferred over bush beans because they yielded a longer harvest. Sweet corn meant white corn as opposed to yellow. Our distinctions were simple, and words like deciduous, ornamental, perennial or biennial never came up. Certainly Latin names were never spoken between the rows of beans and corn.

Flowers—generally gladioli, marigolds, sunflowers or dahlias—were planted in a row along with the vegetables. A luxury, not a necessity, they were cut and brought in the house for special occasions or taken to a sick friend. Gardens were planted in rows for easy hoeing and harvesting. Practicality reigned in the gardens of my childhood, so I was dazzled by my husband’s ability to remember all those Latin names—until the day we passed a blooming dogwood tree and he said, “Dogus woodus.” I glared at him, and he winked at me.

These days, the family dog (whose Christian name is Platypus) is referred to as Canis platypus, and the family cat (who never actually received a given name and is simply Kitty) is formally known as Felis scrawnius. You get the picture.

Knowing the nomenclature doesn’t make one a gardener. Even those more skilled folks can’t remember all they’ve been taught or converse in Latin while weeding, as I first suspected my husband might be able to.

When I began laying out my perennial border, my husband stood in front of it (all 150 by 15 feet of it—nobody ever said I do things in small measure), said: “Red clay. Way too shady,” and walked off, dooming my project before it ever got started.

Coming from a skill perspective, you see, he took note of the soil, sunlight and the overall enormity of the project and branded it a sure failure.

I, on the other hand, was thinking only of what I loved. The silver birches would look so lovely leaning over the garden I pictured, and I would be able to see my flowers from my bedroom and kitchen windows. When I woke in the morning, my garden would be the first thing I saw. As I cleaned up after supper in the evening, my garden would be the last thing I saw.

I am nothing if not a romantic. I would stroll through nurseries looking at foxglove, bleeding heart, columbine, primrose, laurel, rhododendron, delphinium, astilbe, hostas and lily of the valley. My list went on and on—and all of it, I was sure, would flourish in my garden.

“Do you think you’ll be able to keep up with all the weeding and digging and transplanting?” my husband asked. I dug in my heels and started dumping truckloads of manure on my garden (back then the stockyard would give us a truckload for a dollar; now there is no stockyard). I began planting everything, and I will admit that in the beginning, it looked rather like a pet cemetery, but the years and the love (and, yes, my husband’s skill) have created something admirable.

Almost 15 years later, my husband loves the garden too, and while he jokes that I treat plants like furniture—not happy until they’ve been moved at least three times—we’re both pleased with the outcome.

My point is simple. You don’t need to be particularly talented or even proficient to call yourself a gardener or to enter the rarefied world of gardening: The only requirement is liking what you do. And if someone comes to see your garden and comments on your beautiful gladioli, simply thank them and send them on their way with some plants for their garden.

[Cinthia Milner lives in Leicester.]


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