I DIDN’T START out as a scavenger.
My early childhood was split between an apartment in Manhattan and a house on Long Island, a beautiful acre or so maintained by gardeners. In my teens we moved to the city full time, but in those grammar school years the purr of lawnmowers and snip-snip of hedge clippers provided the background to afternoon naps.
There were rambling roses along the front fence that actually smelled like roses, a scent we’re now more likely to find in a bottle than a bush. There were flowering fruit trees and snowballs out front, and, in back, a rock garden was set into a slope. A Japanese garden with a weeping cherry was outside my sister Jeanie’s bedroom window, where shoji screens slid open to frame the view.
Everything was overseen by my dad, a furniture designer who looked a bit like Bill Blass. He ordered every aspect of our lives, from the gardens to the house, to the restaurants we ate in, to the vacations we took—to the suits and shirts and shoes he wore, all custom made by his tailor and his cobbler. We didn’t complain; it was pretty idyllic. It was the way he was raised.
I never had to make do.
Mom was raised with little, but was talented as well, a brilliant cook who also created big, blousy, wildly colored flower arrangements. But the only place around the house where she was allowed to exercise her creativity was a triangular patch of dirt near the swimming pool. I have no idea how she managed to negotiate such a prominent location—probably threatening to withhold something or other.
Each spring she’d turn the soil and lay down ribbons of white gauze infused with flower seeds: marigolds and zinnias and sunflowers in a mad clash of color spurting like fountains. Untamed and magical, it was my favorite space.
It was my mom who taught me how to create beauty, not buy it. Which came in handy when I ended up having more lust for beauty than cash. I can’t think otherwise anymore. Making something from little or nothing is far more fun.
Baby has taken that to heart. When she was a teenager she grumbled some, but as an adult she loves haunting thrift shops—and pinching a bit of this and that as she passes an interesting plant.
She’s in real estate in Raleigh, North Carolina, where she and her Personal Prince Pete have just moved into a house of their own design (runs in the family, see). When she sold her first house, that happy client dug up the flower beds and handed over a pair of lilac trees, some hydrangeas and climbing roses, a hardy gardenia, what appears to be a million irises and a couple of azaleas, most of which went into Baby’s small front garden.
The backyard is more problematic.
We were visiting for a few days last week and I was drinking my coffee and staring at the designated garden area, a never-turned stretch of hard-packed clay about 15 feet wide and 25 feet long, running beside the sodded lawn, a brilliantly green and lush ribbon extending to the back of the property. (I wish them luck with that).
In one of my Eureka! moments, I recalled a recent article in the New York Times about Milan’s furniture show, Salone del Mobile. Therein was a photo of a wildflower garden created by Belgian florist Mark Colle that reminded me of my mother’s pool-side plot. So ordered in its disorder, meticulously uncrafted, that it looked as if it had been laid with seed tapes.
Baby’s garden is a big space to fill, as she and Prince Pete are temporarily house poor. And given the lousy condition of their soil, trying to dig down more than an inch or so would be a brutal exercise for the muscles. However, even a quarter-inch of loose soil allows for laying out and covering these biodegradable rolls of seed, which are evenly spaced (as opposed to being tossed about higgledy-piggledy) and so do not need thinning as flowers emerge.
She could lay out stretches of tape, top with soil, water (a lot), and in just a few weeks there’ll be seedlings of alyssum, zinnias, mints, snapdragons, poppies, and what all.*
Oh, the flowers will grow, and the birds and butterflies will swoop and frolic, and I’ll do for them a Jules Feiffer happy dance (I have several of cartoonist Feiffer’s dances in my repertoire, suitable for various occasions).
Then, in my mind, I added a flourish of lettuce along the border’s edge, Boston perhaps, as a ruffly finishing touch, softening the line between flowers and lawn.
“They have bunnies, don’t they?” said My Prince, spoiler of fantasies. “Peter Rabbit, hop, hop, hop, little overalls, ha, ha, ha, chomp, chomp.”
LittleBird “Stephanie Gardens” gardens in her fantasies as well as IRL.