Saturday, February 04, 2006

How Long Will it Take

My maternal grandparents lived on 3 acres of land in the house my grandfather built in Orange Park Florida. Across the street was the St. Johns River. The entire property was devoted to my grandmother’s garden. The place was filled with azaleas, camellias, dogwood and redbuds. Easter lilies and amaryllis grew kind of wild. Day lilies were everywhere. All this was topped by a mature native Florida forest of Oak, Pine, Maple, Holly and Magnolia. The trees were all draped in Spanish Moss. Spring time in this garden was a profusion of bloom.

They lived an hour away by back country roads and as kids we went to visit for all the holidays and special occasions. This garden was where I hunted for Easter eggs and played with all my cousins. I took walks with my parents and grandparents to see everything that was there and to hear the stories of the different plants.

The garden was also filled with wildlife. There were raccoons, armadillos, tons of cranky squirrels, gopher tortoises and birds of all kinds. The most magical thing there was my grandmother’s favorite, a flock of rare pure white morning doves.

When I was in kindergarten we moved into the house where I grew up. It was a typical ranch style suburban house on a 1/4 acre, maybe, lot in Gainesville Florida. When we first moved in all that was there was a big swath of lawn with the beginnings of a ligustrum hedge on the property line and about five tall pines left on the land from the original building of the subdivision. That was not enough for my parents so we began to build a garden of our own from scratch.

My parents did not just go out and buy a bunch of plants and put them in the ground. There were four children at that point and I do not think it was in the budget. My paternal grandmother also had about an acre of land further up the river. It was just as lushly planted. Bit by bit over time we would dig up small seedling plants and trees or divide clumps of flowers from my grandparents and bring them home to our garden according to how the design was going in my fathers head and what would fit in a station wagon full of kids.

North Florida is in the temperate zone with definite seasons so there were specific times during the seasons when you could or could not move different kinds of plants if you wanted them to live. Of course we had to have Dogwood trees. Their large white blossoms in great masses on leafless stems are the first sign of spring. These had to be dug and transplanted in the fall after they had shed their leaves but before it got too cold.

When my fathers design found a spot where he wanted a Dogwood we had to wait until fall, Thanksgiving usually, before we could bring a tree home to fill the spot. Over the summer we would walk my grandmother’s garden looking for the right size tree, not too big and not too small with a nice shape and in a spot where it would be easy to dig and get a good root ball. When the time was right we would dig up the tree we had decided on and bring it home. Because it had to be small enough to survive being transplanted and to fit in the station wagon with all us kids we usually ended up with a tree about 3 to 4 feet tall.

When we got home we planted the tree and watered it. Now we had to wait until spring to see if it would survive the winter and send out new leaves. Usually they did because we had followed all the directions handed down through the generations. The first year in its new home and we now had a very small Dogwood tree. All we had to do now was wait for it to grow into a tree.

I don't remember precisely how but one of those trees became my tree. It was on the left side of the steps up to the pool that was built many years after the tree had been planted. Its companion Dogwood on the right side of the steps belonged to one of my sisters I think. I watched that tree grow. In three years it was maybe ten feet tall and ready for its first limbing up to begin shaping it into a tree. It scared me to watch so many big branches being cut off its trunk. The tree didn't seem to mind and it kept growing. Every spring it had more and more flowers. By the time I was in high school it was indeed a tree about twenty feet tall. I wasn't afraid anymore when some of the branches needed to be trimmed to give it a good shape and to be able to walk under it. It now shaded the large brick patio that had been added between the pool and the back door.

I moved to Colorado for six years but came back home to finish the last two years of college. My parents had moved to Orange Park to care for my grandfather and left my two younger brothers, now adults still living at home. My Dogwood tree was still there shading the deck with a very large crown. I used its shade to grow potted plants and dug up some of its offspring to try growing them as bonsai. When I graduated college I had a party before I left for Maui. There is a picture of me from that day on the pool deck next to and under that tree. My sister bought the house from my parents and lived there with her husband and daughter for another ten years at least. When I would go home to visit, the garden my family had built from scratch was as much a part of the place as the actual house. Even though it was a small suburban yard I could walk the grounds and hear the stories from the different plants.

My Dogwood tree never had to be moved again or cut down as the pool was built and a new living room added on to the house and a patio built. My dad's design had seen into the future. I got to help plant a tree that was mine when I was a little kid and I watched it grow as I grew. It bloomed in the spring each year with a snowy white profusion that promised abundance in life. It gave my home a sense of place and permanence, something that only seems to come with time.

As a landscaper and nursery owner one of the most frequent questions I get is "How long will this take to get big." The answer which varies is never soon enough it seems from the responses I see. Underneath my irritation with that question is the sadness I feel for them because they are missing the best part, the time to be and to become a part of a place, the time to watch something grow and change and the joy you can get from saying I planted that when it / I was just a small little thing.


christin m p in massachusetts said...

This will probably always be one of my favorite stories. I always try to picture everything you recounted here -- I wish I could see photographs to go with it.

As for the title and what it refers to... Sadly, that's the way I live most of my life. I'm always thinking "How long will it take?" I'm trying to be patient like you and to enjoy each moment as much as possible, but I just don't know how. I think it's something you're born with.

Anyway, to get back to where I started -- Could you post some pictures of the people and the house and plants and trees you were talking about, and of you when you were growing up? That's one of my favorite things -- seeing photographs of people and their families and friends and pets and homes when they were growing up. Naturally, I also get very sentimental whenever I look at photographs of my own life and everyone connected with it.

Now I'm gonna go check out some pictures of Switzerland...

Christopher C. in Hawaii said...

Well it would be incredibly difficult to post pictures from my past with my current level of technological understanding and capabilities. I will however be in Florida the first two weeks of June and I will be going to the house my grandfather built in Orange Park and where my parents live now.

I would imagine that some of my trip will end up on this blog towards the end of June.

christin m p in massachusetts said...

Is Orange Park close to Coconut Grove? My Mom says when she retires (very soon) and sells her house, she plans to get one of those pink stucco Art Deco houses in Coconut Grove, Florida and spend the first years of her retirement just lounging out by the pool reading. She's very tired after thirty years as a social worker. She actually still prefers to work out in the field; she's too restless to stay in the office all day.

Christopher C. in Hawaii said...

Orange Park is about 8 hours north of Coconut Grove by car. Florida is a very long state at least until sea levels start to rise.

christin m p in massachusetts said...

Yeah, that's scary thinking about sea levels rising. I saw that trailer of Al Gore's new movie about global warming, from the link that Dan posted in the breadcrusts blog.

BTW, how come you haven't posted there lately -- have you been too busy? At least when I don't see any comments from you there, I still know you're all right, since you're still adding new stuff here.