Harriett’s Gift

“You certainly do like yard work,” I called from my seat at the picnic table on Harriett’s screened-in porch as I waited impatiently for her to finish whatever it was she was doing in her yard that day in 1991. Since moving to the isolation of the Tahoe National Forest eight miles above Nevada City, I looked forward to the fiercely competitive rounds of Upwords that she and I played each afternoon, once she’d finished her chores for the day.

“I think of it as gardening,” she shot back, “not yard work.”

Though I’d known them only a few months, I loved our across-the-road neighbors already. Walt and Harriett had retired to their eight forested acres in the mountains after raising four strapping sons on a dairy ranch outside Santa Rosa. I guess you might term them old-fashioned farm folks—no-nonsense, salt-of-the-earth people whose door was never locked, whose dining table always had room for unexpected guests, and who would do anything for anyone, once they perceived the need.

Tall and lean, Walt had a full head of silvery waves. Strikingly handsome in his plaid shirts, he could tell a good story and laughed with gusto whenever a new one tickled his funny bone. In addition to his boys, he loved three things in life: Harriett, his bride of nearly fifty years; his 150-pound Lab-Saint Bernard cross named “Hercules,” or “Herky” for short; and his John Deere tractor. Next down the list was his love of professional sports, especially baseball. Then came politics—the conservative Republican kind. He had a well-equipped shop and could build or fix anything, from toys to cars to tractors to washing machines and chainsaws.

Sharp as a tack, Harriett was tiny. Just over five feet tall, she weighed fewer than ten pounds more than she’d weighed at fourteen, when she and Walt first fell in love. Her face was weathered and lined now, the penalty for a lifetime of days spent in the sun. She wore her brownish hair short-cropped, without much plan but easy to care for. Her long nails, strong enough to double as screwdrivers, belied her image as a farm wife. She was inordinately proud of them and kept them polished bright pink. It was her personality I found most fascinating, though. With an acerbic tongue and a dry wit, Harriett never rattled on mindlessly. More often she listened, a sly, barely discernible smile playing around the corners of her mouth, waiting for you to hang yourself. Then, if she had something to say, she said it. Slow to offer an opinion, when she did, there was no point in arguing. Most often, she was right.

“If you’re in a hurry, you could give me a hand hauling this stuff to the burn pile,” Harriett called.

And so began my education, my transformation, my rebirth. In the coming weeks and months, as I trailed after her, helping with the chores, I peppered her with questions: “What are those tall things with the purple flowers?” “Why are you hoeing around those bushes?” “Won’t coffee grounds kill the plants?” “Why are you putting Epsom salts in your watering can?” “Why are you digging up your beautiful iris?” “Why are you burying nails under those bushes?”

Patiently Harriett explained, her incredulity only thinly veiled that the college professor’s wife from Aptos could be so dumb. She taught me how to double-dig; how to gather flower heads in a brown paper sack, secure the top with a rubber band and place it in the sun for days in order to harvest the seeds; how to carefully pinch the spent flowers from rhododendrons to avoid snapping off next year’s blooming shoots; which bushes and trees to prune after their spring flowering and which later on, in the fall; and how to divide rhizomes and bulbs in order to start new clumps or share. She taught me about nitrogen and potassium and phosphorus in the soil and how to enrich it by using what others might term garbage: coffee grounds and tea bags, crushed eggshells, ashes from the woodstove, dog droppings, shredded newspapers, and leaves. She even told me the best garden gloves to buy, not the little winky ones in pretty pastels that are marketed to women in the garden centers, but the more reasonably priced, heavier ones made by Atlas that lasted a whole season even under constant assault by her long nails.

Before long I began gathering boulders and muscling together low retaining walls to create paths and planting beds around our new home across the road. But Harriett rolled her eyes at my frequent trips to the local nurseries. “It isn’t about spending money,” she snorted. “Why spend a fortune on all those commercial soil amendments when all you have to do is go into the forest with a rake, clear off the top layer of pine needles, and gather all the forest mulch you want, for nothing?” She believed in doing it the old-fashioned way: composting, propagating, dividing.

“But that takes so long,” I wailed.

Again Harriett rolled her eyes. “Gardening is about patience,” she said, “and you’ll value the results more if you do it right. Like children. Who’d value kids if you just bought them in batches at the store? It’s the hard work and care and time and love that are important, not instant gratification. It’s about creating something uniquely yours, something beautiful and worthwhile; something that will reward you anew every spring; something that will enrich your life year after year. Your garden doesn’t care how old you are, the size of your bank account, how many teeth you’ve lost, how much you weigh, what you’re wearing—or not wearing—or your position in the local social hierarchy. Let other women have their Valium, their therapists, their retreats, their endless books on meditation and self-improvement; you’ll never need ‘em. Your garden will be all the sustenance you ever need. You’ll never grow too old to cherish an early morning stroll along your paths, coffee cup in hand, visiting your garden family and cheerfully planning your day.”

Now, more than three decades later, Harriett and Walt are both gone. But Harriett’s influence is not. I’ve created three gardens since those long-ago days, each more elaborate than the last, and every morning, as I stroll, coffee cup in hand, I think of her and the precious wisdom she shared. I smile as I tend the descendants of her early generosity—iris and carpet bugle and lamb’s ears and a variety of dianthus I don’t even know the name of but which blooms vivid hot pink every May and June and scatters its seeds widely. “Fingernail-pink,” I call it. I think of Harriett every time I pinch my Vulcan rhododendrons, expertly preserving next spring’s show of brilliant scarlet flowers. I think about her as I pause, warming my back in a patch of early morning sunshine slanting down through the towering Ponderosas. I think of her and of the wealth of knowledge she shared, about gardening and about life. I think of Harriett and her gift and I give thanks.