Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate the seasons in Upstate New York: Summers full of warmth and sunlight, punctuated by the crashing of epic thunderstorms off Great Lake Ontario; Autumns spent crunching through red and gold leaves, savoring the tang of apples on the tongue and the smell of campfires in the breeze; Winter evenings enjoyed under a plaid blanket by the woodstove, curled up with a good book and a cup of steaming cocoa; and Spring days with the sight of crocuses, the song of an early robin, and seeds to plant.
My father, William, was an avid organic gardener who kept detailed charts in composition notebooks—each year’s plantings plotted out by location, number of plants, and eventual yield. I inherited Dad’s notebooks, but not his green-thumb gene. Year after year, I hauled my plants home, along with extra soil, compost, and mulch, only to watch them limp along to a puny harvest. To be honest, I was never much of a weeder. And if it weren’t for my husband, Bill, hauling bucketfuls from our pond, the garden would never get watered.
Still, I persisted in my hopefulness. Then, one day, I got smart.
It happened quite by accident. One year, Bill was coaching youth soccer, and at the end of the season, a grateful parent gave him a hosta plant. I didn’t even know what it was, and those were the days before the internet. Good thing I had stocked up on gardening books, or I would have pulled that perennial beauty out in October and replaced it with mums.
Instead, it returned the next year and flourished. Soon, I had a colony of beautiful hostas taking over the space under the deck previously occupied by begonias, impatiens, and mums. Each year, I saved $100 or more by not buying the annuals and mulch I used to put under the deck. Plus, the hostas required almost no work. Mulch a bit in Spring, put out a dish of beer for the slugs in Summer, remove the dried flower stalks in Fall, and I was done.
It was a light-bulb moment for me about the value of a perennial garden. By now the kids were growing and trombone lessons, football practices, and the like took up the time once devoted to planning and planting the garden. Plus, I was no Spring chicken. My knees and back welcomed a rest from the rigors of hauling mulch and kneeling in soil. We invested in a batch of Spring bulbs.
We invested in a batch of Spring bulbs. They weren’t enough to cover much of our acre and a half, but we planted them to optimal effect for a beautiful welcome to Spring outside our front deck. Eagerly, I’d await the first peek of the crocus and grape hyacinth through late Winter snow. I’d wander out into the still-muddy yard, sneakers making squishing sounds, to see if the daffodils were poking up. And then it was the tulips’ turn to burst out in fireworks of red, purple, and yellow. It made those harsh Winter days fade into a bad dream—well, almost.
I was bitten by the perennial gardening bug. We planted an herb garden. Mint garnished Summer’s berries, while thyme, rosemary, and sage seasoned my Thanksgiving turkey. Best of all, they reappeared year after year, no thanks to me.
My husband’s grandmother, Hulda (Huddy to her friends), helped, doling out the bounty from 70 seasons of perennials: lily of the valley, hydrangea, and still more hostas.
She shared more than her plants. Over a cup of tea and a plate of molasses cookies, she imparted her knowledge and love as generously as she handed out her homemade chili sauce, sweetand-sour pickles, and rhubarb pie.
As she grew older and frailer, she ended up in a nursing home. The thing she missed the most about leaving her farm down the road was her garden.
In her 94th year, Grandmother passed away. On that very day, her old house burned to the ground.
A few weeks later, the new owner called us. “We’re bulldozing the ruins of your grandmother’s house. Come down and take whatever plants you want,” he said.
We set to work with shovels and spades, hauling wheelbarrows full of lilacs and peonies down the road to our yard. And there we planted a lilac grove in Grandmother’s honor and a peony patch of a dozen plants lined up in a double colonnade.
For years, we greeted Spring’s arrival with the sweet aroma of Grandmother Huddy’s lilacs and the brilliant magenta and stark white of her peonies.
Our son, Mike, has our old house now, and he inherited my lack of a green thumb. But perennials are forever, and those that survive will unite three generations with their beauty and warm the souls of all who see them. ❖
This article was published originally in 2023, in GreenPrints Issue #133.