Lemon Balm

Nursery Tales

Originally published in The American Gardener

“Ahhh,” sighed my friend Dana, with more than a touch of envy. “You know that you’ve landed my dream job.”

Dana and I are both writers. Most of the time it’s rewarding work, but sometimes we both get pretty fed up with grinding out copy on deadline and sparring with editors.

Maybe what we should do, we sometimes joked with each other, is throw the whole thing over and get a job at a garden center. Spend a summer out of doors surrounded by fresh air and flowers, plunging our hands in the good rich earth and getting in touch with our souls.

Now, to Dana’s astonishment, I’d actually gone and done it. “Lucky old you,” she said.

I pictured myself in a big straw hat—maybe a straw hat with streamers. I would counsel thoughtful customers, recommending lesser-known bulbs and perennials for their borders. I would help beginning gardeners discover the joys of texture and foliage. I would share bits of gardening folklore. It would be very peaceful and Zen.

Alas, as I soon discovered, there is nothing even remotely Zen about a nursery in springtime. In spite of appalling May weather, customers stormed the garden center frantic to fill their shopping carts with common-as-dirt petunias. Otherwise reasonable people, seized by the fury of battle, fought over which hanging basket to buy and who got the last white lobelia.

I didn’t have time to share folklore. I barely had time to breathe.

Every 20 minutes or so Annabel, the chief grower, zoomed up from the rear in a golf cart hauling a two-tiered trailer. Annabel ruled eight acres of growing fields and greenhouses, all of it bursting at this time of year with merchandise ready to sell.

She had blond hair down to her waistline, piercing Icelandic blue eyes, a wiry frame fueled by coffee and the mouth of a stevedore. Annabel wouldn’t have recognized Zen if it crawled off the back of her golf cart.

“Help me unload this trailer, sister, or I’m gonna break your fingers!”

Somehow I’d never imagined the back-straining, knee-bending, shin-bruising tasks involved in this line of work. I ran like a rabbit unloading trailers and restocking empty tables. I wrestled sacks of potting soil and rain-swollen bales of peat moss into cars full of groceries and golf clubs. I swept and re-swept the greenhouse floors, then swept them all over again, while messy impatiens and fuchsias laughed and scattered more petals behind me.

“What a great place to work,” at least one customer said to me every day. “There’s nothing more peaceful than plants.”

I had always thought of gardening as a democratic endeavor, a pastime open to anyone with an interest in growing things. But after only a week or two of fielding questions from shoppers I began to suspect there were people who simply shouldn’t be permitted to garden.

“Do you have a spray that will kill all the weeds but won’t hurt the flowers I planted?” These were the folks who wanted to garden without ever bending over. They were looking for hedges that didn’t need pruning, lawns that didn’t need mowing, and trees that changed color in autumn without dropping leaves on the ground.

“What’s wrong with the basket of annuals I bought here a month ago? It was beautiful when I took it home, but now it looks like rubbish.” Some people couldn’t comprehend the fact that plants are actually living and therefore may require at least a smidgen of basic care.

Even the veteran staffers could be stumped by customer questions. “What do you call those little tiny containers that plants come in?” one of our shoppers asked earnestly, and my co-workers gave it their best.

Flower pots? Cell packs? Nursery flats? No, said the customer, she didn’t think so. None of those sounded right. Eventually, exasperated, somebody offered, “Seeds?”

“That’s it!” the woman cried happily. “Have you got any of those?”

In spite of the grueling physical chores and the endlessly goofy questions, there were some sweet surprises. A tattooed man with a ponytail bought six different hardy fuchsias because, he told me cheerfully, they reminded him of his auntie.

A gardener who’d lost his vision, and didn’t give a hang about splashy blooms, fell in love with the sugary candy-box fragrance of chocolate cosmos.

Elderly shoppers often asked which were the best summer flowers to grow for cemetery bouquets—such a dear, old-fashioned request that I always gave old-fashioned answers: snapdragons, dahlias, zinnias, clove-scented cottage pinks.

Best of all were the wild things that lived on the nursery grounds. “When customers really get to me,” a long-time employee admitted, “I go out and pet a frog.”

Dozens of handsome bronze tree frogs, the kind you would kiss in a fairy tale, lurked beneath perennial benches and lounged in our buckets of pond plants. We found garter snakes snoozing in sun-warmed pots, chipmunks behind the gift-wrapping counter, and dim-witted killdeers nesting in the lot where we parked our cars. Miraculously, none were mashed under Annabel’s screaming golf cart.

“Outta my way, little birdie dudes! Geraniums coming through!”

By August we were giving away the last bedraggled petunias, making room for chrysanthemums, fall pansies and flowering kale.  By September plump tulip and daffodil bulbs spilled from our retail shelves.

Soon Annabel was shouting for help out back with the Christmas poinsettias—a surprisingly brittle and difficult crop—and threatening us with bodily harm if we busted so much as a stem.

The days grew shorter and colder; finally it started to rain. I wasn’t made of stern enough stuff to slog through a nursery winter. It was time to give up the dream job and find my way back to my desk.

Before I left the garden center I rang up an order of fall bedding plants for a woman who owned a historic inn overlooking the bay.

“I’m so jealous!” she told me. “I’ve always wanted to work here!”

I thought of the grumpy customers, the clogged-up restroom toilets, the day we fried five thousand pansies by spraying them when they were dry.

“Be careful what you wish for,” I said. “It’s not nearly as Martha Stewart as everyone seems to think.”

The innkeeper signed her credit card slip and flashed me a knowing smile.

“Yeah?” she said good-naturedly. “Try running a bed-and-breakfast.”