Category Archives: In the garden

Interesting things I have learned through gardening – and reading about gardening

Front yard greeting card

In The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh, the protagonist Victoria researches the meanings that Victorian lovers assigned to the flowers they sent. Victoria comes up with her own list of flowers and their meanings. After reading the book, I wondered what the flowers in my yard say to my friends and family. I decided to do a little catalog of the flowers that greet visitors when they come to my front door.

At the curb

Several years ago I set out to plant a garden between the sidewalk and the curb in front of my house. I started digging out sod laid several years earlier when the house was built. The process was difficult because of the green plastic mesh used to put the sod in place. I searched for what the heck that stuff is and found that it lives forever, tiny animals can get tangled in it, and if you plow it under to make a garden, your garden might yield produce laced with green mesh. Supposedly this stuff is biodegradable but I suspect it will not degrade in my lifetime.

Pulling that mesh out of the soil is very difficult, but I did it to the best of my ability, filled in with store-bought dirt, and planted. While I was digging in the Tennessee chert and plastic, my neighbor cautioned me to stop. “This is a utility easement!” she exclaimed, “The city or a utility company could dig it up any time! It will be ugly in the winter when your flowers die! You’ll have to water it all the time!” True. I planted anyway.

I planted what I knew after living 20 years in New Mexico: Russian sage, which is drought tolerant and hard to kill. I also put in some coreopsis because they were pretty. Lucky me – For a couple of years we had minimal rain, and sometimes my curbside flowers were the only sign of life around. The Victorian meaning of sage is “good health and long life.” Coreopsis is “always cheerful.” So my front curb is a wish for good health and good cheer. I hope the mail carrier approves.

Russian sage and coreopsis  in my curbside garden

Russian sage and coreopsis in my curbside garden

Here's what the mail carrier sees on a rainy spring day

Here’s what the mail carrier sees on a rainy spring day

Beside the front walk

On one side of the front walkway I had a little slice of grass that I quickly converted to a bed. In it are roses, a Christmas camellia that blooms red in winter, some spunky stella de oro day lilies, and creeping jenny ground cover. Also embedded in the creeping jenny by accident is setcreasea, commonly called purple heart wandering Jew.

Here’s where my visitors run into trouble, and I’m not necessarily talking about the slightly mental dog that lurks behind my front door waiting to defend me from anyone who is, well, not me. This front bed is a tangle of contradictions. The camellia means “my destiny is in your hands” – quite a burden for someone just ambling up the front walkway.

The coquettes

The coquettes

A day lily symbolizes “coquetry.” In some books lilies symbolize “majesty,” but I think the stubby stella de oros are more coquettish than majestic. The red rose symbolizes love, but the beautifully fragrant yellow rose means “infidelity”! I couldn’t find any symbolism in the ground cover, but I did discover that the wandering Jew is so named because it wanders from where you planted it and thrives despite little sustenance, just as the Jewish People have adapted to many different environments around the world.

On the porch

"That creepy head" with asparagus fern

“That creepy head” with asparagus fern

On the front porch are seasonal plants – begonias, red geraniums, and an asparagus fern in a pot that looks like a head. (My daughter calls it “that creepy head” but I love it.) I did a little research on the asparagus fern and it is, as it turns out, not fern but an herb in the lily family.

In the language of flowers begonias suggest “caution” – a message I try to heed by removing the dog from the house before visitors come in. At, horticulturist Elizabeth Ginsburg says: “In the language of flowers, scarlet geraniums have a meaning that relates to either comfort or stupidity. However, the meaning assigned to any geranium, without reference to color, is more promising. These geraniums reflect gentility and esteem.” I would really prefer to think of my front porch as genteel rather than stupid.

If I only had a plan

I really did not set out to give any meaning to my front yard – I just plopped in what I liked and hoped it would grow. They say you should plot out your garden on graph paper – you’ll be sorry when you plant tall things in front of short things or things that spread choke out things that don’t. Without a plan I have lost plants. Maybe I planted them in the wrong place, maybe I overwatered, or maybe I got them on the almost-dead aisle at Lowe’s and couldn’t revive them. Elephant ears disappeared for years at a time and then one spring after a warm winter they came back. Azaleas planted in full sun died a slow and painful death. Trumpet trees grew tall and stately year after year but almost never bothered to flower.

New peony, the future of my garden

New peony, the future of my garden

Recently I planted a new peony bush on one side of my front steps. A peony could mean “anger” or it could mean “good health.” Next spring I think it will be another fragrant reminder of the contradiction that is my front yard greeting card.

Flower power

Bud emerges into hostile world

I read The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh because I was interested in gardening and the ways in which Victorian lovers communicated through gifts of flowers. But the novel gave me insight into more than the secret messages that a garden emits. It taught me what it must be like to parent oneself as an adult emerging from the foster care system – a system I am tangentially a part of.

I’m a volunteer on my county court’s foster-care review board. Every month my panel reviews cases of children in foster care, talking with parents, caseworkers, attorneys, and children. Each month we report on these cases to the juvenile court judge. Many cases involve children who have grown up in the system. Never adopted, these children “age out” and become independent adults at 18.

Our panel often wonders about our children’s preparation for the adult world. Will they receive the training they need to get a job? Do they know how to parent the children they have or children yet to be? We are painfully aware that from an early age, many children in the system raise themselves and sometimes care for their own debilitated parents. Despite independent living training offered to teens in the system, the situation feels hopeless to me. I have a sense that the children who age out of the system can easily become homeless, criminal, or even mentally ill. And there is not a lot I can do about it.

Flower blooms despite setbacks

In the story, Victoria has grown up in the foster-care system, developing an adversarial relationship with the caseworker who has been her only constant in 18 years and with the many foster parents who have deprived her of nourishment in the figurative and sometimes literal sense. Only one foster parent, Elizabeth, loved Victoria, but at a crucial moment she failed as a parent, and the child was plunged back into the system. At 18 Victoria emerges from a group home stunted, guilt ridden, and unable to trust anyone, not even herself.

Victoria ages out of the foster care system with only the Dictionary of Flowers and Peterson Field Guide to Pacific States Wildflowers to guide her. Her only skill is knowledge of the Victorian language of flowers taught to her long ago by Elizabeth. She uses her skill to finagle a position with a florist and to communicate with those people she comes to love. By the end of the novel she is slowly learning how to love others and trust herself.

The author, herself a foster parent, gives us a glimpse into life for those who age out of the system. Having raised herself with not much help from adults, Victoria possesses an Artful Dodger’s sense of survival. She knows how to steal food and hide it on her person, on the presumption that she may not eat for a long time. She attempts to live in a San Francisco park but soon realizes the personal risk and finds a safe (not necessarily comfortable) place to live. A self-taught reader, she learns how to use what she knows to make a good living. Throughout the story, though, she shields herself from human interaction, finding solace only in flowers.

Bloom recovers from blight

Recently the Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth issued a report on the peril that “toxic stress” puts on children who have experienced abuse, poverty, hunger, and abandonment in the foster care system. The report suggests that children who age out of the system experience life-long physical and mental problems. Older children in foster care sometimes have children of their own, and the cycle is perpetuated.

Vanessa Diffenbaugh, though, thinks that cycle can be broken, that abandoned children can make a successful transition into the adult world after emancipation. And she put her money where her beliefs lie, using earnings from The Language of Flowers to establish the Camellia Network (camellia This organization helps young people transition from foster care to the world of education and work. Camellia means “my destiny is in your hands.”
Diffenbaugh believes that if society stops thinking of recently emancipated foster children as “those kids” and starts thinking of them as “our kids,” such children can become viable members of society.

Flower power

Victoria learns that just as people are complex, so is the Victorian language of flowers – each flower can communicate multiple emotions. She creates a dictionary of flowers, poring over old books on the subject, determining what each flower means to her. Diffenbaugh says she did the same thing to come up with Victoria’s flower dictionary, which she prints at the end of the book.

This novel gives new meaning to the term “Flower Power.” No matter what their meaning, flowers give Victoria a way to emerge into adulthood, a way to connect with others in meaningful relationships, and a way to forgive herself and others.

In future blogs I will discuss the meaning of the flowers in my garden. I probably won’t experience significant self-discovery like Victoria does, but I will have a way of sharing the power of the flower.