ALBANY — I always imagined the quote about stopping and smelling the roses had come from some famous poet — perhaps Tennyson, Byron or even Shakespeare. But I was wrong. It was golfer Walter Hagen who said it in his 1956 book “The Walter Hagen Story.” But to be clear, he didn’t mention roses. The quote is: “You’re only here for a short visit. Don’t hurry. Don’t worry. And be sure to smell the flowers along the way.”
It was good advice. Smelling the flowers is one of life’s great joys, and being married to a gardener has been a massive pleasure for me during these days of self-isolation. My wife spends an enormous amount of time in her garden. My job is to keep the grass mowed, tote the odd bale of pine straw, and stay out of the way. Karen does the rest.
Much of the garden I am enjoying during these difficult days came out of another difficult time. When Hurricane Michael roared through south Georgia in October 2018, our neighborhood was hit hard. We had a pine tree fall on our house, as did our neighbors on both sides. The tree broke off about 8 feet from the ground, which allowed it to hinge down like a meat-cleaver and slice our garage roof from wall to wall. You know it is bad when people are stopping their cars and getting out to take a picture. It took nearly a year of construction, but the house has been restored.
The tree damage in the back yard was a different story. Two massive pine trees were uprooted, and one fell across our in-ground swimming pool, smashing the ladder, diving board, and a section of the concrete pool deck. A huge crane had to be called in to lift the tree off the pool. We spent weeks pulling branches and pine needles out of the water, only to discover the pool was leaking from somewhere. Very little of the damage was covered by insurance. It would cost more to repair than to remove. So, we made the painful decision to take the pool out.
Selfishly not wanting to increase the amount of lawn I would need to mow, I suggested to my wife that we replace the pool with a formal garden. She went for it.
Once the pool was filled in, we staked out a perfect rectangle in its place and installed planted areas where the pool deck once was. In place of water, we had a couple of smaller planters, and a bed of gravel with steppingstones. In the middle of the garden — an homage to the pool that once occupied the space — we placed a large, blue urn with water bubbling down its side into a basin. Three ceramic goldfish bob in its bowl.
One of the things I have come to appreciate is that a garden, to a true gardener, is much more than just a collection of plants. It is filled with old friends. It contains memories. It tells a story.
The pass-along plants, for example, came from somewhere or someone. We have a rose bush she calls Mrs. Meyers’ Rose. She got a start of it from her mother’s yard in Louisville, but her mother’s bush came from her grandmother’s house. And grandma got it from someone named, you guessed it, Mrs. Meyers. She has another rose that we transplanted from a rental property we once owned — a rescue rose. Friends gave her the purple coneflowers and the white iris. Her yellow flag iris came from the Albany Garden Club’s plant exchange.
She nurtures her garden and protects her plants when necessary. Her grancy greybeard tree is currently covered in white, feathery flowers. But since it grows next to the garage that had to be rebuilt after the hurricane, she placed a fence around it and put the workmen on notice.
And when the deer in our neighborhood decided that the lilies and hydrangeas in the front yard were good eating, she began spreading animal repellent granules by the gallon and had me build wire cages over the hydrangeas.
Karen is not much into growing vegetables, but we are well-stocked with basil for her pesto sauce and mint for the mint juleps we serve at our Kentucky Derby party. She has small Meyer lemon and satsuma orange trees, and she is proud of her huge loquat tree. She grew it from a seed I brought home from a tree in Chehaw Park. It is now covered with fruit — and squirrels.
For years, we have drawn pleasure from our garden. We never imagined that one day we would be confined to our yard and that simple enjoyment would become a refuge. I realize that not everyone is as fortunate as I am, but as I walk the neighborhood, I see evidence that everyone can enjoy. Azaleas, dogwoods and other flowers are blooming everywhere.
We are trying to be good citizens by remaining isolated and avoiding contamination. We don’t do it out of an obsessive fear, but rather a sense of community. I don’t want some doctor or nurse having to worry about me being critically ill when all I had to do was stay home and smell the flowers.
A wind chime hangs from our screen porch, tapping out its dissonant, luminous melody. It lifts my spirits and complements the sound of the birds, squirrels and carpenter bees that surround me. The flowers and wind chimes help me appreciate the beauty of nature and, in these dark days, I’ll take all the help I can get.