Thanksgiving: An Appreciation
Originally published in the Davis Enterprise, Nov. 25, 2004
'It's the beginning of the confusion.'
That's how my mother aptly put it.
The emails with no content, or with mis-typed words, from the man who never made mistakes like that. The phone messages, urgent that I call, and then no memory of why--but so grateful for the call. Jumbled memories about people, places, and dates. Misfiled taxes, misplaced papers. First one 'minor' stroke that he never knew happened, then another.
It can be hard to watch a sharp mind slip away, and sense the fear and bewilderment of increasing dementia. But the lucid times are still the majority, and remembrances are truly appreciated. So this is for my father.
Many of us are between generations. We're watching kids grow up and become independent, making decisions while we try not to interfere (cash without commentary, I call it). We're watching parents grow older, somewhat dependent, while we strike the balance between helping and meddling. Thanksgiving seems like a good time to reflect on what we've learned, and what we're teaching.
There has never been a time that people weren't actively growing plants around me. An enthusiasm for gardening is something that you pass along by example. It's more than having interesting plants around. It's an appreciation for the natural world, an understanding of where soil comes from, an interest in the weather and insects and the other things going on outside.
Gardeners in my family had very different approaches, but they've had much in common: an interest becomes a passion, enthusiasm is infectious, and nothing seems impossible. Gardening is an optimistic pastime that readily crosses generations.
My grandfather had an immaculate landscape in balmy Pasadena. An interest in roses and Camellias meant 50 bushes. A greenhouse for cactus, and another state-of-the-art one for orchids. Artfully designed with places for grownups to sit and kids to hide, a goldfish pond, cactus garden, and more. Each tree had a story, something that made it special or interesting. Fruit was a nice bonus from the kumquat and avocado, while the sour orange played tricks on passing thieves.
Engineers apply a direct, problem-solving approach to gardening, and once you've solved that problem (oxalis in your lawn, how often to fertilize the orchids), you move on. No point in further exploration of that topic.
The pursuit of perfection in flowers meant looking for the most modern chemicals to achieve the largest roses and unrivalled half-acre of dichondra (perfect for those holiday croquet games). As with most Southern California landscapes, the garden was an extension of the daily living environment: the breakfast room opened onto the cactus house, the sitting patio--shaded by stately sycamores--gazed out onto the pond.
Lady Slipper orchid (Paphiopedilum species);
illustration by Natalie Allison (Shor)
drawn from a photograph of one of my grandfather's orchids
I learned a great deal about how to garden from this man, with his sharp analytical mind and elegant sense of design. He was legendary for his orderliness and his record keeping. Beware if he gave you an orchid: it came with its own 4 x 6 card, indicating origin, dates transplanted, flowering records, and the final ominous notation: 'given to Don'. Almost like an epitaph.
Lessons learned? Beauty is worth pursuing. Problems can be solved, and details are important. Children can be treated as adults if they prove themselves worthy--at least in the garden.
Her woods in New York State were my grandmother's delight, inspiration, and sanctuary. This remarkable, exuberant woman weaved and painted fabric, made gold and silver jewelry, wrote things for fun, and loved being snowed in every winter. You mowed to create clearings, and then watched what grew. Seeds were started from the wild plants, just for fun. Plants were strategically placed to enhance the natural setting: Mountain laurel, daylilies, and wild roses; ferns, wintergreen, and wildflowers on the edge of the meadow. I doubt if she ever used a pesticide.
The landscape reflected the harsher climate: a screen room to escape summer bugs; paths more important than sitting areas. These were acres to walk and hike in, not living areas.
When lush greenery and moisture surround you, where do you go for respite? The deserts of Arizona. One of my favorite books was one she gave me of desert wildflowers when I was a teenager.
Lessons learned? Nature is a garden. There is beauty in contrasts. Children can be encouraged simply by sharing what you love about places and plants.
Avid gardeners are often best paired with people who appreciate their labors without interference. A steady supply of perfect blossoms for the house, and a bounty of avocados, may be all it takes.
My mother and father are scientists by profession and temperament. Unlike engineers, scientists explore every facet of a topic or problem. Ask my father to find some clump-forming bamboo -- next thing I know he's president of the American Bamboo Society. Tear out the lawn to grow all kinds of peppers --just for fun. Give my mother a book on succulents, and the next thing you know she's building greenhouses and going into production. No dilettantes in this family!
Alphonse Karr bamboo
A vegetable garden is planted every spring. In La Jolla's mild climate, it continues year-around. Surprisingly few fruit trees do well, but they've tried many of them one way or another. There's great pride harvesting vegetables for dinner year-around. Some things just go crazy! Tomatoes scramble up onto the roof. How many chayote can you really eat? My father planted a half dozen zucchini plants every spring--a half dozen!?! So put them in a wheelbarrow and send the boy to trundle them door to door -- perhaps developing early retail skills?
They always encouraged my interest in gardening. First a small garden of my own when I was six. A few years later we built a window box; when I quickly filled that up, we expanded it to a greenhouse. Then they turned me loose with a whole section of the landscape to call my own and a monthly gardening allowance. Plant whatever you want, kid! Unfettered praise with very little kibitzing, though they must have bit their tongues many times (they did remove 18 rambunctious vines after I moved away....).
Many lessons learned.... Keep garden activities age-appropriate. Encourage independent decisions to the greatest extent possible. Show kids the resources and step out of the way. Never use the word 'chore'. Do things that provide tangible results--edible is best of all.
What I hope my kids have learned....
From their mother, that wonderful food can come from the garden, or be eaten right out there.
That food can be 'put by'--not because you have to, but because you want to. Jams, jellies, fillings for pies; pickles and relishes, dried fruit and fruit leathers.
That some things take time, like shelling peas and pitting cherries, but are absolutely worth the effort (even if dad doesn't have the patience).
That certain flowers are always special: roses, Camellias, and especially lilies.
That there's always something blooming, and every season is a delight in the garden. That if you like it, you can probably grow it. If not, it's worth learning why. That beauty can be planned or natural.
From me? I'll let them write that article some day.
Our attitudes about gardening are picked up by our kids (and grandkids). When you show an interest, help them learn to solve the problems, show the artistic side of the garden, and convey the sense that gardening is fun, you create the environment. Some will take the lesson, and some will choose not to.
So on Thanksgiving Day, how do you give thanks for the examples your parents have set, and the things they've taught you?
I guess I just did.
In memoriam: George G. Shor, Jr., 1923 - 2009
© 2011 Don Shor, Redwood Barn Nursery, Inc., 1607 Fifth Street, Davis, Ca 95616
Feel free to copy and distribute this article with attribution to this author.
Click here for Don's other Davis Enterprise articles