The Dirt

Gardening has a language, and my husband and I speak it: One day, my husband walks in the door around 5 p.m. and says, "Someone cut down the Koulreuteria paniculata." (Yes, he uses the scientific Latin names for all plants.)

Click the image above to view a slideshow by Margaret Williams.

"What?" I exclaim. "Oh, no. Not the one at A-B Tech?"

AB Tech has a perfect specimen of the goldenraintree (I don't use Latin names). It's located on the school's lawn. Our family-doctor's office is located off Victoria Road, and we've been driving past this tree for some 20 years, rain, snow, hail and shine. I have witnessed this tree in all its glorious seasons. A perfect specimen of the goldenraintree, its leaves unfurl a purple-reddish color in early spring, changing to bright green by summer. In late July, its flowers are yellow, 12 to 15 inches long, and loosely wide, with terminal panicles. It's one of the few yellow-flowering trees. My favorite part comes in late summer, when papery capsules cascade, rainlike, down the tree. These are the seedpods, a golden color this time of year. I'm devastated at the thought of losing such a treasured friend.

My husband interrupts my thoughts, remarking, "No, not that one."

I toss back, "The ones on Tunnel Road?"

Some landscaper chose the goldenraintree for a commercially developed property along the busy route, and several of them grow beautifully there. Not the usual Bradford pear or weeping cherry seen in most business landscaping, goldenraintrees are special treats. I'm clutching my chest as my husband replies, "No. The one in the trailer park."

We're silent for a moment. That tree was a personal favorite.

After this exchange, our dinner is given over to a discussion of possible reasons for the tree's removal. "Was it ill, do you think?" I ask my forester husband. He shrugs. We go on with talk of new roads, new buildings — anything we can think of to explain this tragic loss (we do take it personally).

My 15-year old son explains to a friend who has joined us for dinner, "They're talking about plants. You know: the green things that grow outside."

His friend, who is completely at a loss, says, "Why?"

Why indeed?  A favorite book of mine, Family Sayings by Natalia Ginzburg, is about the languages that belong to families — a language that grows out of lives lived together. My married language is gardening. Naturally, that has become our family language too (though my children will tell you it's by default, since they never intend "to plant one thing, not even one," after leaving home).

Going beyond a simple gardening language, my husband and I also have a running inventory of every plant from the places we go — from the kids' school, to church, to restaurants and businesses and even summer-vacation trips. "Oh, look they've added some new foundation plantings," we'll say of a house we particularly like on the way to the Outer Banks — a good seven hours from our house.

Our son can't believe we remember some plants at the other side of the state. He thought a trip to the Outer Banks might change the language to something else, say fishing.

And choosing where to eat out for dinner also leads to discussing the landscape:

"How about the place with the Juniperus virginiana?" my husband suggests.

"Tree or shrub?" I ask.

"Shrub," he says. (The shrub is grey owl juniper; the tree is sometimes called red or eastern juniper.)

"Ummm, no, not in the mood for that," I say.

The 15-year-old interjects, "What a minute, I might be in the mood for that. Which one is the shrub place?"

Our older son, 20 years old, long ago deciphered this language. He looks at his brother and says, "It's okay, dude. That's the place with the weird spicy food, no hamburgers."

The younger sibling seems relieved but says, "Well then, what about that place with the white gravel for mulch?

"Oh, yeah," we all say, "They have great food." We opt for the place with the white pea gravel for mulch. We may not like the mulch, but we do like the food.

I often wonder what other families talk about, what language defines their daily existence. In the Bagwell-Milner household, it's plants. We have spent the last 20 years moving in and out of this plant-based language. We'll probably continue for the next 30, the Lord willing, to talk about the same. We'll have an entire lifetime's dialogue built around flowers, shrubs, trees, and, of course, the weather. But what else would you expect from two old gardeners?

[Cinthia Milner lives in Leicester.]

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