Excerpt from Mama Makes Up Her Mind: and Other Dangers of Southern Living

by Bailey White

Available for purchase at Amazon

 

"About six years ago, like so many romantic gardening fools, I fell for it: The wildflower meadow. I don’t know whether it was the pictures on the seed packets, or the vision I had of myself, dressed all in white, strolling through an endless vista of poppies and daisies. “A garden in a can,” the seed catalogs said. The pictures showed a scene of rolling hills and dales, an area about the size of Georgia and Alabama combined, covered solid as far as the eye could see with billowing drifts of lupine and phlox.

But I wasn't born yesterday. I had been tricked by those pictures before. I come from down south, where vegetation does not know its place. Honeysuckle can work through cracks in your walls and strangle you while you sleep. Kudzu can completely shroud a house and a car parked in the yard in one growing season. Wisteria can lift a building off its foundation, and certain terrifying mints spread so rapidly that just the thought of them on a summer night can make your hair stand on end.

I knew what Lady Bird Johnson was talking about when she gave the wildflower romantics a look and said, “You can’t just scatter the seeds around as if you were feeding chickens.” Even the more responsible plant catalogs, in their offer of wildflower seed mixes for the various regions of the country admitted, “We have not been able to develop a mixture suitable for Zone 9.” So I knew it wouldn’t be easy.

But it’s hard to squash a romantic. I made a plan. I would prepare my ground, about a half acre, and plant the wildflowers in rows. I would keep the weeds out for five years, by cultivation between the rows with a push plow and a hoe, and weeding by hand within each row. By the end of those five years, I figured I would have eliminated any perennial weeds and weed seeds. Then the garden would be on its own. The wildflowers would spread, eventually taking up the spaces between the rows, and I would get out my white dress and begin my leisurely strolls.

My garden’s first spring: the seeds arrived. I planted by hand. The rows, neatly set out with stakes and string, seemed endless. I crawled up and down and up and down every afternoon examining each seedling as it sprouted. Was this spotted spurge or sweet Annie? Red-root pigweed or showy primrose? I recognized most of our common weeds and tweaked them out.

After every rain I hoed between the rows. My hands got hard and callused. They took on the curve of the hoe handle so that everywhere I went, I looked as if I were gripping a ghostly hoe.

The first summer, my annual plants bloomed. The Coreopsis tintoria was spectacular, a glowing red, and the cosmos was shoulder high. It’s lavender petals brushed my face as I scritched and scritched up and down each row. I loved the sight of the clean brown earth stretching away from the blade of my hoe. On my hands and knees I weeded between plants. My knees ached, but the smell down there was nice, damp ground and bruised atremisia. I developed a gardener’s stoop and a horticulturist’s squint.

That first winter, I could relax only a little. Bermuda grass can establish itself during a winter and get away from you’re the following spring. So every evening at dusk, I would stalk up and down my garden like a demented wraith, peering at the ground for each loathed blue-green blade, my cloak billowing in the wind and my scarf snagging on the bare gray branches of last summer’s sunflowers.

At night, I would lie in my bed under the quilt listening to the wind outside and pinching and sniffing the little branches of sweet Annie I had harvested and dried in July. I dreamed of that summer, only four years away now, when the garden would be finished. My white dress would be linen, I decided.

The second summer was very fine. Some of the annuals had reseeded, and the perennials and biennials bloomed for the first time. But I had a real problem with something called Old Horrible Snakeroot, one of the terrifying mints, creeping in around the edges. Every afternoon, dressed in a wild straw hat, big boots, and little else, and pouring sweat, I violently hoed the perimeter of my garden. I wore out my first hoe that year with sharpening the blade, and the handles of my Little Gem cultivator became as smooth as ivory.

During the third and fourth years the rows began to close in. There were great irregular patches of gaillardia spanning several rows, with Queen Anne’s lace and moss verbena weaving themselves among clumps of black-eyed Susans. When I stood up to ease my back and looked across the garden, I could see that it was truly as beautiful as the picture in the Park’s seed catalog. I wiped the sweat out of my eyes and washed my face in the watering can. My white linen dress would have lace.

The fifth summer, I had to go to the doctor about my knees. “You’ve got to quit squatting down,” he told me. “I can’t quit squatting down,” I said. I’ve got a garden.” He sighed and gave me a pair of elastic bandages. I had a problem with thistles that year. The seeds must have blown in from somewhere. I wore gloves to pull them out, and every time I took out a thistle, I would transplant a wildflower in its place. Every one of the transplants thrived and multiplied, and by the end of that summer, there was not a spot of bare ground for a weed seed to settle in. My garden was complete.

That winter I bought the linen and the lace and sewed my white dress.

In March I went out to the garden. The linaria was the first thing to bloom. I knew it would be. I knew that a week later the verbena would show up, then the shasta daisies and the gaillardia – a clump here, here, and here. In midsummer the Queen Anne’s lace would begin to bloom. I knew exactly how it would be. I knew the name of every plant. I could recognize each one even before it got its true leaves. I sighted down the length of the garden. There was no trace of the neat rows I had worked and worked for all those years. The garden had taken over itself, just as I had planned. I walked back to the house. I looked at my soft, limp hands. I looked at my white linen dress, with lace. It seemed like the stupidest thing I had ever though up. “The fact is,” I said to myself, “I want something to hoe.” I’ve started reading about intensive gardening. It involves double digging and raised beds. Every season you pull out the old plants and put in new ones. It’s a garden that never gets finished.

I gave the white dress to my sister, Louise. Sometimes she comes for a visit and strolls in the wildflower meadow. She ooohs and aaahs and brings her friends to see it. They pick armloads of flowers. I sit on the edge and draw diagrams of my next season’s garden in the raised beds. I’m learning about companion planting. In the wildflower meadow, the Queen Anne’s lace waves its filigree heads over the marsh pinks, and the sweet alyssum tucks up neatly around the clumps of painted daisies. But I hardly notice. I’ve got a new garden now."