In the middle of my eleventh year—in 1958—I experienced an epiphany of sorts. For some unknown reason, I discovered that I liked flowers. I decided to join Speedy Seeders, a 4-H Home Beautification Club.
There seemed to be some strange, unseen force guiding me toward plants. There was no logical explanation as to why. My mother, Millie, worked as a sales clerk in notions at The May Company, a department store, and Peck, my dad, sold trucks for Denver Dodge; hardly a recipe for my ardent interest in flowers. True, my next-door neighbor, Jake Saunders, who was at least 50 years my senior, enjoyed landscaping in general and perennials in particular—that, along with handicapping horses at Centennial Race Track. Was he my inspiration—for the one, at least?
I vividly recall my first Speedy Seeders meeting on South Galapago Street in Engle-wood at the home of Mrs. Scott. She, along with her daughter Susan, was a wonderful teacher, full of enthusiasm and knowledge. The atmosphere was contagious (even though I needed no additional encouragement: I was already extremely motivated from the unseen force).
They instructed us to go home, read, make notes, and draw a layout of our proposed gardens on graph paper. Then we should build the garden we drew and record everything associated with our gardens in our new spiffy yellow-ochre-colored workbook and logs. We were also going to grow and show our own flowers and—well, to say the least, I was pretty excited to get the ball rolling—or soil seeded. I mean we’re talking blue ribbons here! This was important stuff, very important stuff.
I returned home, full of P & V. “Mom!” I shouted, “I need a place for my flower garden!”
I had visions of beautifying the entire front yard, possibly a large tract by the back door. We had a very large lot and all it needed was my expertise. Anyway, at least I had a great deal of enthusiasm for my new passion of home beautification.
Mother was always encouraging me, I give her credit for that. But this time she seemed hesitant. I suppose she knew what I wanted to attempt was not going to be as easy as I thought. At long last and after much more encouragement from moi, she finally said, “OK, OK, why not take that spot behind the incinerator?”
Did my ears deceive me? Oh my goodness, did she say “in the center?” Of the front yard? The backyard? I anxiously asked, “The center of what?”
Her reply was, “Oh honey, you know. That area behind the incinerator.”
“Oh…behind the incinerator.”
So my plans for a glorious floral array that would benefit all those fortunate enough to walk by were up in smoke—the smoke behind the family’s ugly, concrete trash crematorium.
Well, I put the disappointment of the unfortunate location be-hind me and did as Mrs. Scott and daughter Susan had instructed. After little more than a smidgeon of research (gratefully supplied by my spiffy yellow-ochre-colored workbook and log), I drew my plan for the garden. It was only a five-foot by ten-foot plot, the plot no one wanted, but it had to be perfect.
Then my personal chauffer, Mom, drove me and my two dollars to the Piggly Wiggly grocery store and I carefully selected my cherished seed packets from the spindled green wire rack. I had it all figured out: all the packets cost 25 cents each so I selected eight. It included red salvia, cosmos, asters, an annual black-eyed Susan, and two varieties each of zinnia and marigold. I had it all figured out—except for sales tax. The total cost was $2.05.
The cashier looked down upon me and said, “Son, I need another nickel.”
Panic overtook me. I looked at Mom. She looked at the cashier and shrugged. I looked back at the cashier and he shrugged.
Then, thankfully, Mom produced the nickel and laughed. “Here you go, sir,” she told the cashier.
Then looking at me, she said, “Well Steve, are you set now?”
“Yes, ma’am,” I said sheepishly.
I began turning the rock-hard soil with an adult shovel. It was very slow going. My mind drifted off to nearby Little Dry Creek where my neighbor Gary was playing, a grass seedhead lazily hanging from his mouth. But I persisted, banishing the rocks as I went. According to my spiffy yellow-ochre-colored workbook and log, the finished product should be dark brown and the consistency of moist cake. Mine was tan and the consistency of talcum powder—worse, talcum powder with pebbles.
Enter Mom or, more important, Mom’s purse. She again chauffeured, this time to the hardware store just down from the Piggly Wiggly. I purchased, with obvious monetary assistance, a bag of garden soil and a large bag of compost. Now I was $5.37 in the hole, plus the nickel. This time there was no shrug, she just paid. Moms are like that.
I added the entire contents of both bags, then continued to hand-work the soil until my previously unworked hands ached. The soil eventually was light and somewhat airy. It did not have the consistency of moist cake, but it was, well, better than the previous edition.
Enter my garden-guru neighbor, Jake. After inspecting the site and without saying a word, he left and returned with an even larger bag of compost and spread it over the entire area. Then, again without saying a word, he slowly started working the soil.
I said, “Jake, I’d better do that. I think I’m supposed to.”
Jake, now kind of laughing, said, “For a second, I thought you were going to let me do it all.”
I worked the soil for hours, well, maybe another hour, but it seemed like a very long time. Finally, the soil began to resemble something akin to a cake. At least I thought so, I didn’t try tasting it. I then carefully planted the seeds according to the information on the seed packet. After two days of work, which was, truth be told, probably only four or five hours (including the trips to the stores), my garden was planted and watered. All I had to show for it was a brown patch of dirt, opened seed packets stuck on top of sticks to denote the rows, and, of course, blistered hands.
But I had discovered that I kind of liked digging in the dirt.
This was my first opportunity to experience what patience was and how it went hand-in-hand with gardening. I dutifully watered—again as per the instructions on the seed packets—and waited and waited and waited. It seemed like half the Summer was over. After an agonizing period of about two weeks, I noticed a mystical sight: little green growth! I had carefully planted in rows—as outlined by my seed packets—but little plants were everywhere. Again, I consulted the wealth of horticultural information on the seed packet. There, for anyone to examine, were small illustrations of what the tiny seedlings would look like. Thank goodness or I surely would have pulled nearly every seedling out along with the weeds. Now I not only dutifully watered, but also weeded on a regular basis.
By the Ides of June, my patch of annuals was getting buds. How exciting was that! Imagine, tiny seeds had grown into small plants—some with buds already! It was simply awe-inspiring.
I was very proud—much like when I brought home a great report card, which unfortunately didn’t happen all that often, but I did recall that occasional glee. Soon the buds began to open and my glorious floral display was abloom for all to enjoy in absolute wonder and awe. That is, if they cared to walk about 150 feet to the back of the yard and peek behind the concrete, smoked-stained incinerator. But, my, what a vision and what a great mystery it was. It was like, well, magic—at least to me.
Just imagine, those tiny seeds –—coddled, watered, fertilized, and weeded, had grown into a soon-to-be blue-ribbon garden. That was the plan, anyway. There were quite a few smaller garden shows we Speedy Seeders used as warm-ups to the big daddy of them all, the Arapahoe County Fair. We had learned what type of single-stem flower had a better chance of winning medals or ribbons. The bouquets were a little more challenging; there were descriptive titles such as “The Wild West,” “Indian Summer,” or “Lazy Days” to cue your artistic talents. At first, coming up with ideas to match the themes was difficult, but the more I tried, the more my imagination offered surprising and rewarding results.
At last it was the first week of August, time for the Arapahoe County Fair. This had been the ultimate goal all Summer—the Arapahoe County Fair! My heart was pounding.
The day finally arrived. We arrived at the exhibition hall and went to a long counter manned by six people; I lined up behind the placard A-D and carefully took my entries out of cardboard boxes. My heart was still pounding. I wasn’t sure there was any way I was going to survive the day, let alone the week!
We walked out of the hall, and the smells and noises of the county fair hit me. Funny, I didn’t even notice them when we first arrived. The enticing aromas of buttered popcorn, cotton candy, earthy hay, and caramel apples wafted through the air. The carnies barked the benefits of their assorted games. People on the amusement rides gasped and whee-ed. The excitement was intoxicating.
Two excruciatingly long days later, we came back: the judging had been completed. We entered the exhibition hall, and I was amazed at the number of people. I walked slowly, afraid of failure. We finally made it back to the flowers in the 4-H Home Beautification area. The first entry I saw was my red zinnia—with a red ribbon. I guess that was appropriate, but nonetheless a little disappointing. But then I saw that my black-eyed Susan had a blue ribbon attached, as did my spiffy yellow-ochre-colored workbook and log. Now that’s what I’m talking about! In total, I entered 12 categories and received six blue, three red, and one white ribbons. There was a yellow ribbon on another entry, which I guess meant it wasn’t good enough for a real one—it read “Honorable Mention.”
Back home and looking back at the past four months, I wasn’t sure I totally understood what had transpired. I only knew that I couldn’t wait until next summer.
Now I have over sixty years of experiencing this garden-ing magic. And it is magic. If you really think about the simple process, it still remains astounding. Imagine that tiny little seed, goodness!
I still grow, from seed, all my vegetables and nearly all my annuals for my 40-plus containers and raised beds. But my passion is now centered on perennial beds and creating dynamic mixed borders while pushing the envelope on zonal denial. My mixed gardens and various retreats encompass a rather modest 3,000 square feet, but I still dig it by hand.
And when I do, my heart still pounds. ❖