One of my fondest memories of childhood was helping my father plant a pair of peach trees in our South Carolina backyard.
I loved that singular moment with my father. I loved putting my hands in the soil and patting down the dirt around the trees. As much as anything, I loved seeing the happiness in my often emotionally distant dad's face as he did the same.
I always knew there was a backyard gardener in me, too.
Yet when we finally bought a house 20 years ago, our three children were small and needing space to play. The backyard gave way to a swing set and a wading pool, a zip line and a treehouse painted in Harry Potter colors. My time gave way to them.
I had a bit of a vegetable garden off to the side, where I planted kale and broccoli and tomatoes, the children helping me pat seedlings into the ground.
What I also wanted, though, was an ornamental garden, the kind you'd want to take a cup of tea into in the morning, the kind that would produce a prolific stand of one kind of flower in June, another in July, the kind like my dad had with his second wife in the years before he died.
Even if I had time and space, I had no direct experience with such gardening. Even though I occasionally got to see my father at work in his garden, I never thought to ask, and he never thought to tell, which plants grow best in the shade or how to arrange a garden in a right balance of color, shape and height. I was sure there were absolute rules of gardening, and I knew none of them.
But then one spring not so long ago, with my children in their teens and 20s and no longer needing so much of the backyard or me, I blew past my anxiety. A friend walked me through her garden to give me ideas. I went to the nursery. I bought a bunch of perennials I liked. And I put them in the ground and watered them. The next spring, the plants came back, like magic out of the bare winter ground, and I planted more. The next spring, as a Mother's Day gift, my children helped carve out a space around the apple tree. And there, I planted still more.
With some measure of mixed feelings, we dismantled the rusty old swing set that year and gave it away. We also took down a favorite climbing tree that was growing under another tree and bending under the weight.
And soon enough, or maybe not so soon, because it takes time for things to grow, the backyard playground of my children's childhoods began to transform into a place we now call garden.
This tiny space of land behind our modest house is still not, and likely never will be, on anybody's garden tour. The "lawn" part of the backyard is more dandelion than grass. There are no hedges shaped into labyrinths, no garden stakes pronouncing a lilac bush "Syringa vulgaris." In one corner still stands the kids' dilapidated, abandoned tree house, more a monument to Boo Radley than Monet.
But the backyard, once teeming with joyful children chasing each other in the summer twilight, is plenty now again, with glistening strawberries and sun-reaching kale proliferating in raised beds next to gardens of Solomon's Seal, mint and lavender. A stand of yellow primroses explodes in the middle of the yard every June as clematis climbs a fence. Little Buddha figurines co-exist with Mother Mary next to Jack Frosts and black-eyed Susans, and the hydrangea I planted the year my mother died. The blooming bush that I moved three times, that I thought would never grow, is now the size of a small car.
I have under my gardening belt a wealth of tangible lessons learned the hard gardening way, how a compost pile full of weed seeds will likely produce a garden full of weeds; how 55 strawberry plants, no matter how tenderly planted, will never produce fruit without full sun; how Southern jasmine will not survive a Northeastern Ohio winter.
I have, too, in my mind's possession a collection of other less tangible lessons my father likely knew, that he passed on to me through instinct, that I am determined to pass along more directly to my children.
"Come see the garden!" I call out to my daughter on a Sunday morning in June.
I take her to a honeysuckle vine, a half-wilted plant I waited too long to put in the ground. I wasn't sure it would take. But on this Sunday morning, on Father's Day, as it turns out, I see the vine has found the trellis on the side of the house, where it is happily curling and winding its way all on its own.
"Gardens are a wondrous thing," I say, as much to myself as to Emily. "They make you wait for things to grow."
I imagine I sensed from my father's face that warm summer morning in South Carolina there was something more than plants to grow in a garden.
In fact, reads the garden stepping stone my children helped me cast one Mother's Day, "Love grows here."
I see it now. I suspect I always did.
Debra-Lynn B. Hook of Kent has been writing about family life since 1988. Visit her website at www.debralynnhook.com; email her at firstname.lastname@example.org, or join her column's Facebook discussion group at Debra-Lynn Hook: Bringing Up Mommy.