When I was a little girl, I never splashed through mud puddles, kicked playground dirt into a dusty cloud or came home with grass stains on my knees. I didn’t own a pair of jeans until my junior year of college in 1970. In each of my careers – newspaperwoman, college instructor and published writer – I never had to get my hands dirty, and certainly not my knees.
My husband, Lee, and I bought our first home, a charming brick house with an established garden, in Vancouver, Wash., and I decided to add a bed of gladioli in the backyard. I don’t know why I chose that flower as my first attempt at gardening. Gladioli, also known as sword lilies, grow upright on stiff stalks, with bright petals that turn sticky and slimy when they wilt. Swords and sticky petals don’t tend to blend well with English gardens and their graceful, romantic flowers: sweet violets, rambling roses, delphiniums and Canterbury bells, all growing together in natural bouquets, and hollyhocks against a wooden fence. But in Vancouver, I was a new gardener, impetuous from the start, with a box of gladiolus bulbs and an aversion to dirt. I still remember kneeling at the far edge of that flower bed, so I wouldn’t smudge my new gardening pants.
A few years later, Lee and I moved to the Seattle area and bought a new house on a large lot, with no landscaping at all. All that brown dirt distressed me, but it also set free something inside: a wildness of spirit that I was afraid to express in other ways. I soon realized that if I wanted to make beautiful, untamed flower gardens, I would have to get my hands dirty. Even my knees. Cute, floral-print gardening pants wouldn’t do. I would wear jeans and be proud when the denim faded and softened from countless trips through the washing machine.
Lee laid down sod for the front and backyards, and then I dug garden beds and filled them with the old-fashioned flowers I love. Over time, Lee built a wooden arbor in the backyard for climbing roses, and tiered beds for growing more flowers. We eventually sold our house to a couple who, I was sure, would treasure the gardens. A few years later, during a visit with nearby friends, we drove slowly past our former home, eager to see the flowers in summertime bloom. The new owners had ripped out the delphiniums, roses, phlox and Canterbury bells and replaced the garden with bark chips and gray landscape rocks.
When we moved to Moscow nearly 10 years ago, my first major project was digging up all the sod around the apple tree in the front yard. Then I began to fill it with beauty. In recent seasons, I’ve added oriental poppies, in burgundy, pale pink, purple and lilac, to the wild mass that is my English-inspired garden. Earlier this week I spent several afternoons there, adding homemade compost to the flower beds and planting a few more perennials before the summer heat arrives. Afterward, I headed directly to our laundry room, where I shed my soil-caked jeans and dusty tennis shoes, and shook bits of leaves from my hair. My hands needed a good scrubbing and, when I checked the mirror, I saw a couple of smudges on my cheek. Before I reached for the soap, I just smiled and smiled, grateful for the joy and freedom I find in my Church of Dirt and Flowers.
Sydney Craft Rozen can be reached at email@example.com