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The Old Folks in my Garden
by Janet Davis
by Janet Davis


Janet Davis is a freelance garden writer and horticultural photographer whose stories and images have been featured in numerous publications. Magazines featuring her work include Canadian Gardening, Canadian Living, Gardening Life, President’s Choice Magazine, Chatelaine Gardens and, in the United States, Fine Gardening and Country Living Gardener.


October 23, 2005

The best gardens aren't just collections of plants and outdoor furniture, they're filled with cherished memories and evocative images. And if gardens have ghosts, then mine has three.

Mrs. G. was probably 90 years old when we moved onto the street. Her hair was perfectly white, her skin pale as alabaster, and she wore a buttoned cardigan and sensible shoes when she came out each morning at half past seven to sweep away the maple keys in front of her house. In her rockery, she grew a particularly lovely pale pink perennial geranium; it would have amused her to hear how fashionable that would have made her these days.

When she moved into a nursing home, her house was sold to her grandson and his wife. They took up the garden's stone patio to make way for a lawn that would be softer on their new baby's feet, and decided the pavers should go to someone who'd treasure them. And all these years later, as the squirrels, cats and songbirds take turns standing on Mrs. G's sun-warmed flagstones to drink from my lily pond, I have a feeling she'd approve.

I didn't know Mrs. J. very well, but she always said hello as she passed by with a basket over her arm on the way to the market. She'd been a ballerina, I'd heard, and though her braided hair was now silver, she still held herself with the straight-backed carriage of a dancer. Each summer, fluttering from an upstairs window above her beds of bright red geraniums, she'd hang the flag from her husband's wartime naval ship. I knew she'd become ill when I saw her walking slowly down the street, silver hair unbraided and falling around her shoulders. And there were no geraniums in her garden that year.

When her house was finally put on the market and a sale of contents held, I ventured inside for the very first time. Along with the usual china and silver, there were glimpses of an elegant past. Draped carefully in an upstairs bedroom were several exquisitely beaded and perfectly preserved dresses, likely from the 1930's; I could imagine the silky fabric swaying as she took to the dance floor on her navy man's arm. But for me, the prize was in a cobwebbed corner of the basement -- an old tin watering can with a $2 price tag. Not a fancy one, by the way, but a dented Peter Rabbit kind of can. It leaked a little, but I didn't really want to water with it anyway. Today, it sits in my back yard, and some years I plant it up with a red geranium. Just like the ones in Mrs. J's garden.

Mr. R. was 70 years old, but looked ages older. He'd been a brilliant student, they said, but something had gone wrong before he could find his way in life and he settled for a job as a bicycle messenger. He had a fierce love of plants and an expert's knowledge of botany and would travel by bus across the country, collecting plant specimens from remote places and bringing them back to be classified by friends at the university. When he discovered I was a gardener too, he invited me into his topsy-turvy back yard where he grew rare wildflowers and native shrubs.

My husband had a nickname for him. "Your boyfriend's at the door", he whispered, waking me at 6 o'clock one June morning, "and he's brought you flowers." I pulled on a dressing gown and headed downstairs. On the front porch stood Mr. R. wearing his engineer's cap over his wispy silver hair, an old undershirt and soiled overalls held up on his shrunken frame with frayed suspenders. He was holding a stem of flowering raspberry he'd found in the ravine nearby. "This is native 'round here," he croaked, fixing me with his wire-spectacled gaze, seemingly unaware of my own disheveled state, "though there's not as much as there used to be."

There's one Mr. R. story I'll treasure forever. In his garden was a huge specimen of greenstone, a rock I'd admired once, I guess, because when he saw me building my own rock garden, he suggested "that man in your house" should come and get it. So my 6-foot tall, 210-pound husband wandered down the street but soon returned, shaking his head. "Weighs a ton, can't be done."

I forget about the rock until one blazing hot day later that summer when I was out front weeding, and turned to behold an astonishing sight. Coming up the sidewalk was Mr. R. wearing red, woolen long underwear. In one hand was a garden hose which he was using to soak the sidewalk in front of him, the other was dragging a child's plastic toboggan on which sat the gleaming wet stone. He grunted and pulled for more than a half-hour, the odd little convoy attracting considerable attention as it neared.

Needless to say, Mr. R. lives on in my garden. Along with the ladies.

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