There’s a segment of the total people I know that I refer to as “garden” people. I only see them in the summer, and when I’m talking to my husband about them, I identify them as “garden friends.” Pasquale, the Italian gardener who is the guru of our community plots, is “My Garden Friend Pasquale.” The plot across the path from mine is tended by the Tom-Waits-voiced Garden-Friend-Gino, who plants enough tomatoes and peppers to can tomato sauce to get himself and his mother through the winter.
I can measure my gardening past in the age of the garden kids. Ellie and Jeff were pregnant with their fifth child when I met them; that baby, Henry, is now 8. The oldest of their children, the only girl, the inquisitive, hat-loving Elizabeth, is 14. In one of my first years at the garden, Elizabeth, wandering around the several-acre garden area, meandered into my plot while I was mounding dirt for my cucumber hill. and started asking questions. What are you planting? Why are you planting that? What is that tool? How do you use it?
Elizabeth became my garden helper that year, weeding and pruning while she asked incessant but incisive questions for a 6 year old. Every year since then, I’ve seen their family at least once in my garden forays. I saw Henry learning to walk in the long grass of the paths, saw the other boys playing at sword-fighting in the wide swath of field near the soccer fields. Each year at a different level of development, helping in the garden more vigorously or wandering more independently, this family unknowingly marked my development from ignorant “toddler” to capable “adult.”
It’s been eight years since I started putting spade to dirt, eight years in which I’ve learned a great deal about gardening. I know now that cucumbers don’t need to be on a literal “hill”, but I don’t yet know why the books say to plant them and other vine plants in a “hill” when they really mean “circle.” Maybe I’ll learn that next year.
I saw Elizabeth the other day from a distance, still a lover of hats. I smiled and waved, but she looked away. I’m not offended by the thought that she doesn’t remember me. Kids do that in their movement through stages, leave behind some chunks to make way for other things. We all do, really. It’s easy to forget that adults are still developing too, still moving through stages, still learning and growing and clearing things out to make way for other things. But even when we clear things out, there’s still a residue, a memory. Elizabeth in her sunny hat is part of my garden memory.
Next year, I will be planting in a different environment and a brand new zone. I know the Pacific Northwest is fecund, lush, and I’m looking forward to a longer growing season and completely foreign pests and irrigation concerns and soil composition and plant types. I’ll have to learn a lot of new material, and I’m very eager to start. I’ll make new garden friends. My garden education will move to the next level, and there will be different things by which I’ll mark the years that pass.
But Elizabeth in her funny hats, counting Twelve O’Clocks as she paces the garden path will remain in my mind, my halcyon garden icon.