The Pleasures of Blooming Late

Our tomato plants look better than ever, after being barren through most of the summer.

Our tomato plants look better than ever, after being barren through most of the summer.

It’s the first week of September, when many plants are already starting to drop their leaves. But believe it or not, things are starting to wake up in our garden.

Our tomato plants, which were leafy but largely barren all through July and August, this morning were heavy with large green fruit. Small clusters of buds are emerging from the tops of our hydrangea branches; each will turn into a showy blue flower if frost doesn’t get to them first. Our potted geraniums and window boxes, which were yellowed and sparse six weeks ago, now look as vigorous as the day we took them home from the greenhouse.

This isn’t supposed to be happening now. The first snap of fall, which is New England’s loveliest season, typically is a signal for all growing things to start winding down. Like the final flourish of a conductor’s baton, those first crisp breezes send a clear message that the show is over. But this summer — when the show was in full swing in most people’s gardens — ours was as disastrous as Spinal Tap’s final tour. It looked tired, ignored and unloved, despite mounds of compost, diligent pruning, deadheading, soil testing, weeding and relentless inspections. Our daffodils came up late, a single bloom for each big cluster of leaves. The hydrangeas, newly planted this year, gave a pretty if not spectacular show in early June then stopped. Some of their leaves developed black spots from my well-intentioned but misguided watering, which caused them to burn out. The geraniums, supposed to be the easiest flowers to grow, still struggled in their pots, while gray mushrooms sprouted around their stems. And our tomatoes, despite being grown in an organic “square foot garden” that was one-third compost, produced pretty flowers that never turned into fruit.

Throughout July and early August, other gardeners enjoyed baskets of ruby-red tomatoes, lush bouquets of basil and trumpet-sized zucchini. One friend’s coneflowers were a blaze of purple, while only five of them emerged in our flower bed. I beat myself up over this, thinking that I was cursed as a gardener or that my soil was cursed. The confidence that possessed me in the Spring — when Bob and I fervently worked the soil, dug holes and sunk dozens of plants and transplants into the nurturing earth – shriveled in the searing July heat.IMG_3369

My brother Dan, who visited a month ago, advised Miracle-Gro. I didn’t think this was necessary because I had used compost and figured that an organic approach would be enough. But soon after I began the chemical interventions, the window boxes and pots began sprouting buds, the leaves grew a deeper green and infant tomatoes were born from the yellow flowers. And the hydrangea, which looked so tired for so long, now are signaling a second coming, more glorious than the first. So I don’t feel so hopeless after all. Now we are just hoping we can harvest the tomatoes and enjoy a spectacular flowery finale before frost shuts it down for good.

I think this experience illustrates the pleasures of blooming late, after everybody else has peaked. Sometimes it’s frustrating to feel dormant when everyone around you seems to be growing and thriving. It can be easy to get mired in depressing thoughts that your time has passed, or even that it may never come because you made too many mistakes. But then something happens that surprises you. Maybe it doesn’t happen organically, like it does for people blessed with youth, good genes, inherited talent or a natural green thumb. Maybe you need a little mental Miracle-Gro to force along what nature has shortchanged. My Indian summer garden reminds me that every season of life brings its flowerings, sometimes when you least expect it.

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A Lifetime in Storage

A few things from my grown son Ryan's closet.

A few things from my grown son Ryan’s closet.

When is it the right time to clean out an adult child’s long-unused room, go through years of accumulated possessions and decide what stays and what goes? Do you let your son or daughter make that decision or take matters into your own hands?

I’ve talked to friends who are still waiting for their long-departed 30-year-olds to deal with their stuff left at home. They are afraid that they will make the wrong decision if they do it themselves, incurring their child’s lasting resentment and years on a psychiatrist’s couch. Maybe they secretly hope this accumulated detritus will exert a magnetic field pulling their young adult closer. And I think on some level, parents worry that tossing their child’s moth-eaten stuffed animal, broken action figures, headless Barbies, awkward prom photos or yellowed high school compositions will send a message that it is no longer their child’s home.

I thought about this yesterday when I went through our son Ryan’s stuff. Ryan, now 25 and working in Europe indefinitely, gave us the OK to repurpose his room, which he had not inhabited steadily since 2006. With a few exceptions – his strongbox, three books and his most beloved teddy bear — he left it up to me to decide what stayed and what got tossed or donated.

“I think that anything I really wanted I would have taken with me,” said Ryan from his apartment in the UK, over a FaceTime connection that kept cutting out.

I told him I would pack everything that stayed into a box; offer any unwanted clothes to his brothers and deal with the rest.

That meant I was judge and jury for every artifact from his babyhood through his young adulthood crammed into his closet, drawers, nightstand and two rolling carts in his 11-by-13-foot room. Ryan has always been a relentless weeder, regularly giving away clothes that no longer interested him and tossing toiletries that outlived their usefulness. From his mid-teens he had a thriving eBay account, regularly buying electronics and other items that intrigued him then selling them when he tired of them. This made cleaning out his room even harder, because most of what remained was not trash, but a carefully curated collection of relics, all of them precious to some degree.

A few decisions were easy. I threw away expired vitamins and half-used toiletry bottles, decorated shot glass souvenirs from places he visited long ago. Notebooks from his college business courses got tossed, but not before I gazed at the dizzyingly complex mathematical equations, written in my son’s distinctive hand, and felt proud and amazed that he understood them. Letters from friends that he no longer talked about, photos from the summer camp where he spent six weeks, his old textbooks…all went into the discard or donate piles.

Some things that were saved: the three books he requested, including one that we had given him as a Christmas gift, a photo book with pictures from our former home in Pennsylvania, a tiny porcelain baby shoe engraved with his name, birth date and weight. A book entitled “20 Love Poems and a Song of Despair.” A Spanish/English dictionary that will be saved for Ryan’s younger brother, now in Spanish I. Paperwork for Ryan’s successful attempt to gain Irish citizenship, which paved the way for him to work anywhere in Europe and the tremendous opportunities of his current job. The binoculars left to him by his grandfather. A presentation booklet written by our long-ago babysitter in Pennsylvania, listing the dozens of special times she shared with Ryan and his sister Rachel. A strong box without a key, its contents a mystery.

But other decisions were not so easy. Deedee, the small white teddy bear that was his favorite, was easily a keeper, but what about the lesser stuffed animals? These ursa minors included a purple velveteen bear given to him by my long-ago work colleague; “Poochy,” a tiny bear with an adorable face and a purple sweater; and others that once crowded onto his single bed. Only Poochy made the cut, and I felt regret as I threw the others into the maw of the dark green trash bag, growing heavier by the minute with discarded memories.

I found a big cardboard poster created for Ryan’s high school graduation in the back of his closet. It was filled with photos that I thought I had misplaced long ago, but now realized they were here all along: the photo of him as a one-year-old wearing a seersucker onesie decorated with trains, Ryan dressed as a cheerleader at age 8 for Halloween, a closeup of Ryan as an infant with Rachel, Ryan on the fishing dock in Martha’s Vineyard. The photos – along with the eager acceptance letters from colleges, glowing with praise for Ryan — can be easily stacked and saved, but what about the heartfelt graduation messages scrawled on the cardboard? Likewise, what about the graduation cards that spoke of pride in our son’s accomplishments and confidence in his future? What of the notes from long-ago friends, thanking Ryan for his faith in them and for helping them through a difficult time?

I kept some things and tossed the others, grateful that the trash bag hid them from view, resisting the urge to peek in one more time and stoke my regret. What mattered now was the man Ryan had become, not the things he left behind. The purple velveteen bear, the letters from friends grateful for his friendship, the souvenirs from camp and from places he visited, are all part of who he is now. His future is a strong box without a key, filled with mysteries but secure.