Der Gute Gartner ( The Good Gardener )
If you tickle the earth with a hoe she laughs with a harvest. -Douglas William Jerrold
My mother would often sit late at night and tell us of her childhood. At the end of a long summer day, we would burrow under a mountain of soft blankets as she sat at the edge of our beds, a soft silhouette gently walking us back in time. I was always fascinated with her stories of her father, a stern Teutonic conundrum who seldom showed affection but exuded fierce loyalty and conviction. He was tough – – parsimonious with praise and quick to disapprove. He once attended my high school baseball game where I severely sprained an ankle sliding into second base. I will never forget him coming out of the stands to chide me for not going back into the game. “You’re fine.” He said gruffly. “Walk it off”. His eyes darted across the crowd as if to gauge whether people were mad at me for leaving my post at first base. He was embarrassed.
He grew up at the turn of the century in Germantown, an ethnic enclave in urban Philadelphia. It was a community where people began work before dawn and never really stopped laboring until they died. God was found in the Lutheran church and in the sweat and toil of a six day work week. My grandfather found the city suffocating and only really felt alive on weekend trips to the country. He loved the smell of rich earth leavened with manure. He did not mind working in the outdoors and later would find work on a local farm. The boy had endless energy and a circumspect manner inherited from his father. He was handsome with dark wandering eyes and a dimpled chin. Later in life, people would swear George was the spitting image of cinema star, William Powell.
He ran away at 15 after a bitter fight with his father, lied about his age and joined the navy. He never talked much about his time at sea but my mother shared that he had been thrown in the brig for hitting an officer and commended for saving another man’s life. He had deep scars on his leg that he never discussed. The ocean could not hold him and as was the progression for many sailors of his time, he found himself discharged on a foggy wharf in California. He quickly married and began a family.
He raised his children to “be self sufficient“ and required them to tend his massive garden and care for a menagerie of chickens, ducks, swans, goats, cats, dogs, rabbits and tortoises. As they got older and moved on to their own lives, he turned to his garden for solace and companionship. Each spring, he would transform his backyard into a massive arboretum of flowers, succulents, herbs and vegetables. He would painstakingly mend the soil of his garden to produce a prodigious bounty. He would not allow pests to establish a beachhead in his green kingdom. We actually suspected him of using radioactive material as it was the era of genetic mutation and science fiction, and was the only logical explanation for the absence of insects and his basketball sized tomatoes. Whenever he would visit, he would descend like a vegetarian St Nicholas showering us with unpopular bags of squash, green beans, peppers, onions, carrots and citrus from his orange, grapefruit and lemon trees. It was not good. It meant weeks of zucchini for dinner. Invariably, his offering was too much even for our family of six and the cornucopia became a spawning ground for rot and swirling fruit flies. My grandfather would shake his head at our aversion to vegetables, soft hands and limited work ethic. We were boys and boys were “made and molded by work”. We, the lotus eating progeny, would whine and complain when we were forced to help him work in the garden. He was disgusted by our lack of inspiration and perspiration. The agrarian age was coming to an abrupt end and we were the final weak link in a long blue denim line.
While he saw character in the neglected, broken dirt of our yard, we saw only weeds and blisters. We called our back garden “the gulag” and avoided its sharp sprinklers, overgrown bottle brush bush plants and ever present dog dirt. My grandfather would arrive each spring like the swallows to San Juan Capistrano and ritualistically replant our garden. He was not just landscaping, he was weakening the grip of nature and striking a blow against neglect and poor work habits. He fashioned redwood grow boxes for vegetables, planted rose gardens and tended numerous fragrant citrus trees. He installed an irrigation system and carved a deep compost pit. As he toiled silently, we grew fascinated by his carpentry – – grow boxes, trellises and elaborate hanging nets to train peas and vines. The gentleman gardener taught us how to fashion a secret mulch, leavening just the right amount of chicken manure into compost and soil to stimulate growth in even the most fickle of places. He could, perhaps, even grow hair on the head of a balding man.
As George entered the winter of his life, his ambition for gardening never diminished. Yet, his back and poor health conspired to keep him from his heavy bags of topsoil and his great need to excavate as much irascible Northern California clay as possible. When I was 16, my mother tricked me into assisting his annual planting ritual. I was not prepared for his fiercely discriminating glare but I plowed his garden, tilled the topsoil and became a co-owner of another season’s harvest of blood red dahlias, sunrise marigolds and lavender foxgloves. What I did not realize was the German gardener was also planting seeds in me. His love of the earth would germinate years later when I purchased my own home and with it, came the latent need to bury my hands in the soil, plant and reap the harvest of my own labors. In his life’s December, he was ensuring his perennial return through his grandson.
On one visit, just a few weeks before he passed away, I watched him chastise the landscaper accusing him of neglecting the azaleas and holly in the front garden of the assisted living facility. “Those are acid loving plants and they need fertilizer.” The apprentice gardener smiled and dragged his hose across the mown grass. We crossed the manicured grounds and made small conversation – the gardener and grandson. He guided me to some chairs near some potted plants where we sat and talked about business, football, politics and weather. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed him absent mindedly picking at the potted petunias and snap dragons, dead heading the spent petals. As we ended our visit, we approached the entrance to the facility. As he walked past the front desk, he opened his hand and dropped the dead flowers into the garbage can. The good gardener was working “his” plants right up until the day he died.