Growing Up Speaking Plant

by Brian Kane

I am of the last generation who knew a grandparent who lived on a farm. Perhaps that explains why we spoke plant in my family. My siblings and my parents did not utter the words “bush” or “tree,” but we talked of transplanting the ilex or mulching the pyrus, and recounted that time when Grandma pruned back the pyracantha to 18” from the ground. 

We grew up knowing the botanical names for the foundation plants that skirted our green shuttered split level. There was not a native plant in the whole lot. Our home showcased the suburban junk food plant menu of 1964: Ilex japonica (Japanese holly) Pyracantha coccinea (scarlet firethorn), Forsythia intermedia, (forsythia) Ligustrum japonicum (Japanese privet), Osmanthus heterophyllus (false holly), and Spiraea japonica (bridal veil). Home builders threw this stock around a house like parsley around a turkey after a house received its occupancy permit. My mother and father, perhaps encouraged by my grandmother, planted native trees at intervals, so we were fortunate that Liquidambar styraciflua (sweet gum) and Quercus palustris (pin oak) shaded our strong southern exposure, which was a blessing when the July temperatures hovered on either side of 90 degrees.

The engineer who apportioned and graded the lots of our subdivision spared stands of native trees, including Quercus rubrum (red oak) and Quercus coccinea (scarlet oak), Liriodendron tulipifera (tulip poplar,) Ilex opaca (American holly), and Cornus florida (flowering dogwood). Eleven white dogwoods ringed our 10,000 square foot lot. (We actually called them dogwoods, not cornus, because cornus would have been affected). With their distinctive horizontal branching and tiered bloom, these trees grew more lovely over time, and our backyard was illuminated every April. The dogwoods stood as a reliable backdrop for the annual Easter Sunday photograph, if the timing of the lunar calendar was right. One year there was a blanket of snow that canceled the photo op, but that was that weird March 31 Easter which was way too early. 

Caterpillars dropped in great numbers from the oaks and tulip poplars (they host over 400 species of caterpillars), and due to the dense tree canopy, nothing grew below these trees except for invasive Pachysandra terminalis (spurge) that my parents planted over time to slow flow of stormwater across our backyard than from the adjacent hill. (My mother paid me 5 cents per pachysandra hole and to this day, she claims it was 10 cents). Falling into pachysandra beds ensured that a caterpillar’s life continued and avoided being chopped into kibble with a lawnmower’s blade, or the obsessive raking that prevailed in the 1970s, when leaves were jammed into black plastic yard bags and stacked by the dozens on the curb for municipal waste. I remember trying to touch the cupped blooms of the tulip poplar with my big toe while I was on the uphill side of our metal swing set, but that tree branched too high for my seven-year old leg to ever accomplish that feat, but I kept trying.

Old trees were not always benevolent to suburban settlers, and I remember one night our parents roused us from our beds and herded us into our home’s lowest level as a violent storm threatened the tulip poplar next to our house. The ailing tree was removed after the storm passed and its base remained a depression in our yard for the rest of our occupancy. It also became the location for home plate during future softball games. 

As the planting continued, my parents stopped regularly at Frank’s Nursery, Kenny Roberts Garden Center, and Cravens Nursery, mom and pop nurseries where strange smells permeated greenhouses floored with mossy cinder block. They would pick up grass seed, a rose, or another flat of pachysandra. Walking the greenhouses left us moist and unsure of what to do while my parents debated a plant purchase. There wasn’t even a gumball machine, which I felt was a big miss by Frank, Kenny, and the Cravens.

I see no small nurseries anymore. Cravens succumbed to fourteen four-bedroom houses with attached garages on 6,000 square foot lots that face the busy state road. Nearby, a mega-nursery thrives with 11 regional locations and personnel who motor across rows of shrubs in golf carts with walkie-talkies and I doubt they know an abelia from an akebia. The mega-nursery beats the dehydrated display of shrubs and trees at Home Depot with tubs of easy-to-propagate and easy-to-profit-from plants, namely leyland cypress, glossy abelia, and Manhattan euonymus and the vast array of highly profitable annuals. I won’t dignify them by giving them a botanical name. Each provides no habitat or food and won’t live more than two decades. I cringe when I see people loading these forlorn plants into a car and think bad thoughts to myself. 

My parents put us to work digging holes to plant the pachysandra, pull dandelions, and toss food waste in the compost pile, which seemed an acreage away from our kitchen and scary at night when we encountered a random varmint eating an old watermelon rind. I learned the native plants of the region, both by observing our local stands of woodlands and taking walks in nearby stream valleys. My high school biology teacher Mr. Scott walked us from the biology lab a short distance to show us a climax beech forest (Fagus grandifolia) that the new sprawling one-story construction of our high school had spared. 

In autumn, when the assigned duty was raking oak, dogwood, and tulip poplar leaves into plastic bags, my siblings and I would take a break and lie on the front lawn and watch the hundreds of calling black specks traverse the sky overhead for ten or fifteen minutes, leaving us still with our arms spread wide as we watched them pass in the orange-blue afternoon light.  I haven’t seen these autumn migrations since, and wonder where the birds have all gone today.

Once our .22 acre landscape was established, my Polish grandmother–the one who did not grow up on a farm but was a legendary gardener–refereed the overgrown pyrus and ilex japonica during her annual spring visit from Florida. Grandma stepped off the Boeing 737 from Lauderdale armed with pruning shears and cardboard box of grapefruits and key limes from her garden, wrapped in twine and shipped through checked baggage with her name and Fort Lauderdale address clearly written on it in thick black marker.

This 5’ 3” lady would level shrubs to half of their original size, stating that they needed to regenerate to encourage internal leaf growth to improve their long-term form. Grandma worked hours on the ilex, ligustrum, and spiraea while the family was at school and work. We would return in the evening to a series of leafless limbs, where ungainly shrubs had stood that morning as we walked to the school bus. Yet, within a year, the skeletal remains of these shrubs flushed out new growth and became elegant forms against our brick facade. Neighbors noticed and commented on the form of our shrubs. We, too, thought our ligustrum looked quite nice compared to the ungainly mounds at the Lyons or the Stevensons.

As I realized the limitations of our suburban landscape with its stream valley left intact, I began to explore the wilder areas beyond our town. As a teenager, I cringed with my family members at the proliferation of big and wide houses on land of the few horse farms that remained, as a tide of housing spread west to the Blue Ridge Mountains from the Washington Beltway. One subdivision near our church named its new road “Sledding Hill Road”  and you can guess that no one sleds today on that slope that had once been a community gathering spot after decent snowfalls.

After studying landscape architecture in graduate school, I married a woman who also grew up speaking plant, and whose parents also made the stop at the local nursery to pick up what was needed, boring her as she waited in the way-back of the Country Squire (we had the Gran Torino, a slightly less large wagon, that obtained 13 mpg on the highway on our annual treks to the beach). My wife knows her Ilex crenata versus Ilex japonica and also knows that you cut the forsythia way back after it blooms or it will be a leggy mess. Her mother specialized in camellia japonica and camellia sasanqua (you will have to look those up to know the difference), or ask any of my wife’s four siblings. 

She and I have gardened together now for decades, and speaking plant has connected us in our married life. Our four daughters did not engage in deep gardening with us and balked at the annual family leaf-raking days as my wife and I rolled our eyes and pulled the gloves off of our calloused hands. The children did enjoy bulb planting in November, and I renewed their interest when April blooms appeared along with the dogwood blossoms, which are plentiful in our Virginia garden today. I have transplanted their offspring into various points in the yard, a few eaten to the ground by hungry deer. 

I have planted hundreds of trees in the last three decades, both by specification and by my own hand as a volunteer. My third daughter painted a card for me that proclaims He Who Plants Trees Loves Others Besides Himself, and I have kept it posted to my bulletin board, no matter where my office has gone. I still speak plant to her, and to my other daughters, two who now live in the city with tiny backyard gardens. This spring, returning to her Ohio dorm after a year-long pause due to COVID, my card-painting daughter asked me the name of the flowering shrub next to her dorm entry which smelled wonderful in April–Syringa vulgaris (lilac). Perhaps she will plant this in her own garden in a few years.

I  plant lettuce seeds about six weeks before any of my children return home in the spring from college so I am out on cool March evenings dropping tiny black seeds into the just-thawed soil. By mid-May I have some great salads ready for them when they are back at our kitchen table, even if for just a few short weeks. It’s my favorite thing to grow because I can do it before the heat gets relentless and the evening harvests are easy in the cool weather. The squirrels and chipmunks also leave it alone.

My oldest daughter moved out of our house after returning from the Peace Corps in Panama where she was integrating sustainable agriculture and reforestation methods in a rural community. There she started her own garden outside her rural duplex and learned that near the equator, the vegetable plants needed daily water or they would be dead in three days. With her Peace Corps veteran housemates in Washington, D.C. she spent the spring tilling, then planting the seeds they had germinated in window sill terra cotta pots. She has asked me for pots, soil mix ideas, and a few tools. I can’t tell what they envision for this spring, and they say they have plans, but I keep a distance and want them to learn by trial and error, as I have.

They are learning to speak plant, and it sounds differently than it did when I was  growing up. But I believe it is the dialect that belongs to the next generation, one that is even further away from a farm.

photo credit: Brian Kane