My Crop of Young Gardeners

I live several doors down from a guy named Larry. He and I have never exchanged more than a couple of sentences. His grandchildren, though—that’s a different story.

Three of them came up to the fence one day as I was weeding. The girl, who appeared to be the ringleader, said, “Hi, I am Dejah. This is my brother, DJ, and my cousin, Quan.” Then she got down to business: “Can we have one of those flowers?”

She pointed to my abundant supply of double-pink peonies. “Sure,” I said. They came around to my side of the fence and supervised as I clipped an enormous bloom for each of them. Flower in hand, Dejah asked the next logical question. “Why do you got all these plants?”

My answer led to a tour through the garden, with me pointing out things here and there. They showed polite interest until we reach the apple tree. Then their faces lit up like they had hit the mother lode.

I had to explain that the tiny green apples would need all summer to ripen. Still, Dejah  dragged Quan over next week to ask, “Are the apples ready to eat?” I shook my head. Unwilling to lose this rare appreciative audience, I cast around for other plants that do something.

We stroked fuzzy leaves of bachelor’s buttons and sampled the serviceberries. Then I realized that chocolate mint was a perfect offering:  It smelled like chewing gum, and they could eat the leaves. It went over so well (“Can we take some back to Grandpa?”) that I then showed them some lemon thyme for contrast. Then we went a few plants away to lavender, which we smelled more than tasted, then onto another bed, where we grazed on thyme and two kinds of oregano, thus completing a circuit of my herbs.

The apples didn’t ripen until October, and by then Larry’s grandkids were busy with school. But they came back the next spring to visit my garden, and the spring after that, as well. It became a pleasurable tradition to tour the garden with them.

Whenever I came across a new herb in a catalog or nursery, I’d catch myself thinking, “Larry’s grandkids will appreciate this one.” Over the years I added lemon balm, sage, peppermint, sweet woodruff, and my personal favorite, anise hyssop. I scattered them through the garden to create tasting opportunities at intervals along the main circuit. I practiced my urban tour on other visitors.

This past fall, for the first time, Dejah, Quan, and DJ happened to stop by during apple season. My tree had produced a bumper crop, but my live-and-let-live approach to backyard bugs resulted in the fruits being somewhat wormy and misshapen. That doesn’t bother me—I’m used to eating around the rough spots—but I was kind of embarrassed to bring the apples to kids who’d probably only seen perfect supermarket produce.

I stilled myself against their disappointment, but they just shrugged. “That’s OK,” said DJ. And Quan said, “Can we see the chocolate mint?”

They scampered ahead to the mint patch, where we chewed our leaves and smiled at each other. I congratulated myself that, while my apples might be sub-par, my crop of young gardeners was coming along splendidly.

—By Evelyn J. Hadden. Art by Linda Cook Devona