Every summer about this time, I spend a couple of days touring private gardens. And I get paid to do it. I am one of the judges of The Sun's annual Garden Contest, and it might be the best part of my job.
We receive between 30 and 60 entries each year, and the other judges and I whittle the list down to between 10 and 20. We schedule the visits, load up my car with icy, cold bottled water and off we go, covering hundreds of miles over two or three days.
I know pretty when I see it, but that's about all I know. So we take judges from the University of Maryland Extension Home and Garden Information Center along with us as the experts. I have learned so much from them over the years. But I have also learned from the gardeners we have visited.
Every garden is as individual as a fingerprint, and beauty is truly in the eye of the beholder. We have seen some crazy novelty gardens and visited gardeners who never met a plant they couldn't find a place for. And the pride of these beaming gardeners will touch your heart.
But there is more to see in these gardens than flowers. You can catch a glimpse inside the hearts and minds of the gardeners, too, and you learn how their lives have found translation in their gardens.
The widow whose engineer husband can still be seen in the borders he so carefully laid out for her. The empty-nesters who tempt the birds to take the place of their children with elaborate bird houses and feeders. The retired high school science teacher whose gardens are so well-behaved that you know he is working through 30 years of frustration in the classroom.
There's the model train enthusiast who has created a miniature landscape for his trains. The nurse who has created a garden "room" for the yoga that takes the stress of her job away. The tropical plant enthusiast who encloses his garden in plastic each winter — and heats it. The father who creates a garden for his daughter's wedding.
What a privilege it is to hear their stories. To see the love and all that hard work.
Some love flowers and cram every blooming variety they can find into their gardens. Others think that any space that does not produce food is a waste of earth and sunshine. But most of the gardeners we have met find a way to combine in their gardens a feast for the eyes and food for the body.
We met a Philippine couple who grew exotic vegetables we had never heard of, let alone tasted. And other gardeners who are happy with just a couple of tomato plants.
Although some of the gardeners we have visited still had children around the house — and some even gardened with them — a serious garden takes a lot of time, and many of these gardeners are retired. Some are in their 80s, and to see the amount of work they do in their gardens — splitting stumps and building walls — will make you believe in the restorative power of gardening.
I have been that younger gardener. A full-time job, two kids in school, a husband who traveled for work. My Mother's Day present each year was six tomato plants and the time to put them in the ground. That was the extent of the gardening I could do.
But as my children grew older, I had more time for my gardens. And with each new stage in their lives, I opened a new bed.
There's one from when Jessie got her driver's license, and I no longer had to be the taxi. There is the one that went in when Joe went into the Naval Academy and the one he helped build before he left Annapolis for wars unknown. A garden is a good place to use the energy that fear generates, a good place to ease sadness. Something to do with the time your children used to own.
It has been a great spring, and my gardens are looking terrific right now. Just in time — and just the place — for the party to celebrate my daughter's engagement to a wonderful guy.
My gardens tell my story, too.
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