The Joy Garden

Oh, it was such a nice day!

The late spring sun was shining and the air outside was as soft and warm as a caress. My husband, a master gardener, was on his way over to my Mom’s to help me tame a wildling umbrella plant. Living outside on her apartment’s small, half-shaded patio here in California’s hot Central Valley for the past 18 months, my little Schefflera plant had gleefully grown nearly two feet skyward. Most of the growth was on two branches, so that the plant resembled a giant “V.” The center was finally filling in nicely, too.

But it had outgrown its pot and was now so large I'd had to tie half of it to one of the posts supporting the upstairs apartment's balcony. If this had been a normal houseplant, I’d have trimmed it down and re-potted it myself. But I wasn’t sure how to remove those long, long branches or how to re-“start” them in their own pots once I did. It was growing so well! I didn't want to murder it!

My husband arrived, and after looking things over, he assured me that we could, with a minimum of fuss, divide the umbrella plant. We wouldn’t have to cut those long branches, he assured me. Instead, he thought each branch actually belonged to a separate set of roots. We’d just dig the whole thing up, untangle the roots, separate the plants and re-settle them in their own pots. No big deal, right?

Um, right.

He asked about the other plants on the patio. Maybe that little gardenia could do with a new, bigger pot so it could stretch its toes and grow? And how about that pretty jade plant, over there? Surely, it was root-bound. That small bougainvillea could really benefit from a larger pot, too. And by the way, hadn’t I mentioned a while ago that Mom would love some homegrown tomatoes? He’d just happened to bring a couple of tomato plants, already potted up, with him for us. They were out in his pickup truck.

The tomato plants were still youngsters, but the heavy, soil-filled ceramic pots he’d put them in were huge. I helped hubs heft them back to Mom's apartment from the parking lot one by one, gritting my teeth and hoping my hands and fingers, always sore from rheumatoid disease, wouldn’t punish me too badly later. We placed the tomatoes on the patio in a spot that would be sure to get plenty of sunshine. It was late for starting tomatoes, but we should have a luscious crop of nice, heirloom Brandywines and hearty Romas before California's long summer ended in mid-October.

With that accomplished, it was time to go to a nearby nursery for more pots and, though I had a small bag already, more potting soil. Already, my small gardening job had grown, just like that umbrella plant.

My husband is joyfully enthusiastic about gardening. His grin is infectious and his eyes sparkle with excitement when he's at a nursery. We picked out some nice pots and put a couple of bags of potting soil into the cart, and as we headed for the checkout line, he suggested that we get some baby’s breath, as well. We'd put it beneath the umbrella plants and the others as a lovely, green, living mulch.  “Yes” was the only thing I could say to such a nice and practical idea, so we bought a whole flat. Then he suggested we get a watering can that was well balanced and not too heavy for my increasingly frail mom or my persnickety rheumatoid disease hands. Well, of course!

I spent the rest of the afternoon helping him divide and pot the monster Schefflera—it turns out there were three of them tangled together, not just two—and re-potting the other plants. We planted the baby’s breath, too, and as a final gesture, hubs pulled a surprise packet of nasturtium seeds from his back pocket with a flourish. We planted them in each of the pots. Because, he said, they’d be so bright and pretty, right?

Lifting pots and heavy sacks of soil are hard on the small joints of the fingers, hands, and wrists. But I loved it—it’s been a while since I've been able to do any gardening, even if it was just in containers. By late afternoon the patio, now filled with pretty pots and plants, looked great. With the day winding down but still gentle and warm, hubs, Mom, and I walked over to a local restaurant and had a well-deserved, early dinner in celebration.

Afterward, hubby packed up all his gardening tools, gave me a sweet kiss and a long hug, and headed back up to our little house in the mountains. He’d accomplished his mission: to make me and Mom laugh and smile and to help make our tiny patio greener and prettier, complete with a promise of more beauty to come as the season progressed.

I’d enjoyed spending the day with him, and I’d had fun digging in the potting soil and planting things. Mom was pleased with her new garden and her little tomato plants. I think she was a little overwhelmed by the way it all multiplied!

By early evening it was obvious to me that I’d overdone it. Even something as gentle as dividing and potting plants had aggravated the rheumatoid arthritis in the joints of my hands and wrists. They twinged and ached something fierce. My elbows and shoulders were sore, too—helping to carry those heavy tomato pots wasn’t the smartest idea, and I’d known better when I’d done it.

I paid for my little gardening adventure with achy, painfully twinge-y hands and wrists for two days afterward. It reminded me that it’s smart to pace yourself when taking on an unaccustomed task—at least, if you can.

And if you can’t? Then enjoy doing it, and enjoy the memory of the good time you had. Chalk it up to experience. Every time I look out the window at the apartment patio now, with its three lush, thriving umbrella plants, their roots cushioned and protected by thick pillows of baby’s breath, and the new, round-leafed nasturtiums that are growing in each of the pots, I smile. The jade plant is plump and pleased, the bougainvillea growing and starting new buds. And the little gardenia plant is blooming, it’s ivory flowers filling the air with their sweet, heavy scent.

That garden was worth every single growling joint.


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