Hands of a Gardener

The story they tell.

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ILLUSTRATIONS BY CHRISTINA HESS

The woman ahead of me pushed on the door of the garden center to open it, her hand high on the glass pane. Before me, I saw long fingers and a slender hand, tapering to a wrist wreathed with bangles. Her fingernails reached well beyond the tips of her fingers. They flashed and glittered red, a flower-fashioned red, like the petals of an indoor amaryllis that blooms in the snow-wrapped winter, or an early crimson tulip announcing the arrival of Spring.

I held my hands in front of me and sighed. I have the hands of a gardener. The reason I do is because I have an alarmingly large garden, a series of gardens really. There is the peony row, the perennial garden, the vegetable garden, the herb garden, the raspberry patch, and the red and white garden down at the end of the lawn, which isn’t really only red and white. Closer to the house you will find a couple of sincere hydrangeas and irises under the dining room window; azaleas and Lenten roses stand in front of the kitchen windows. Behind the garden shed is a secret garden that is so secret nothing is planted there, but I need to pull the weeds between the paving stones anyway. And I could go on.

There’s a story in my hands, not the sort a palm reader might tell, but a story just the same.

As soon as the ground thaws in the early Spring, I am down on my hands and knees, digging in the mulch, moving Hidcote lavender to the back of the herb garden and the common thyme to the front, pushing the shrunken pea pellets into the ground that is still splashed with lingering spots of snow, and removing last year’s canes from the raspberry patch.

I start out with gloves, gardeners’ gloves with thick bits where the designers think I might need some protection. I put the gloves on, honest I do, but very soon something happens and the gloves come off. I will find them later, soaked with rain, under a rhubarb plant. I want to pull out the early weeds—the dandelions and the invasive Michaelmas daisies—with my bare hands. I want to wiggle my fingers into the mud to find the roots, to follow them and tug them out. My tiny lettuce seeds, like pepper from a shaker, need a warm hand to pull the earth over them and tuck them in. So no gloves. Throughout the gardening season, it is easy to see my hands are the hands of a gardener, testimony to my hours in company with living, growing things.

My fingernails are ragged and require repeated vigorous scrubbing, and much clipping. There are scratches where I tangled with a climbing rose in an attempt to prune it back. (Roses are at once one of the loveliest and most vicious of garden denizens.) There is a pinkish rash on my right palm from a misguided attempt to pull a rogue stinging nettle that was camping next to a plantain lily. Some days my knuckles are swollen from gripping the orange-handled trowel for so long. And totally yucky are the occasional gluey remains of a squashed slug, accidentally sacrificed as I weeded out the lettuce row. Slug residue does not wash off as easily as you might think; it will require scrubbing with the brush under the sink. I am no fan of the garden slug, neither its name nor habit. However, when in my probing of the welcoming earth, I come upon a common garden worm, I am careful to treat him gently and move him to a soft spot of turned soil, out of reach of my trowel.

There’s a story in my hands, not the sort a palm reader might tell, but a story just the same. It is a story of seasons and growing things and touching the earth we live on.

As for the lady with the manicure, the glowing perfect, scarlet manicure in a color pulled from nature’s palette, her hands also tell a story, one I do not know.

But, after all, she was going into the garden center.


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