Grandmother’s Country Yard
by Bobby J. Ward
I never knew my maternal grandmother because she died when my own mother was barely a teenager. But I know she grew flowers as well as vegetables and that she passed along this love to my mother, who inherited the farm. Grandmother made a distinction between “garden” and “yard,” reserving the former for growing vegetables for rural self-sufficiency and the latter for flowers and ornamentals, a linguistic peculiarity still used in much of the U.S. South today. In her yard in rural eastern North Carolina, Grandmother Nixon grew floppy gladiolus, garish zinnias, huge red cannas, and an array of petunias---a collection of plants that many today would think undistinguished considering what we have available from nurseries and mail order catalogs. In faded sepia photographs, the old family cemetery can be seen filled with roses and phloxes, the latter seeded around with abandon among graves and beneath native sassafras and dogwood. The idea of plastic flowers in a graveyard or manicured turf would have seemed outlandish indeed to Grandmother. And a rock garden would have been equally alien to her.
Without the benefit of advanced education or horticultural knowledge, Grandmother was guided by her own practical experience and the recommendations of the Farmers’ Almanac, taking cues for sowing tomato and flower seeds and planting bulbs, such as sets of onions, from the phases of the moon, signs of the Zodiac, and long-term weather predictions. She would hardly have known that the zinnia seeds she sowed each spring came from Mexico, where they were grown by the Aztecs and were considered unattractive by the Spanish conquistadors.
Later, my mother added plants of her own. The snowball bush (an old selection of Viburnum macrocephalum) came from Aunt Eula, who lived at the edge of the Dismal Swamp at Whiteston. The bridal wreath Spirea and Deutzia plants, which I often confused and miscalled as a child, were delivered one day by Miss Bertha, who lived on Acorn Hill Road. The hollyhock, lofty beside the pork-curing smokehouse, was passed along from Cousin Mary who lived at Gum Branch near the sawmill. Growing beside the hollyhock was the fragrant rosemary (its name I have learned means “the plant that grows by the sea”). Rosemary was used solely for providing an agreeable flavor to pots of lard when fresh branches of it were plunged into boiling pork fat during the annual winter hog killings. Neither my grandmother nor my mother ever considered using it as an herb for roasted lamb or pork.
What I remember most distinctly at grandmother’s house was the old red Weigela. My mother said her mother called it ladder-to-heaven, a name apparently of Southern regional use only. That is how I knew it for years until I learned its proper botanical name as a college student and that it came from China to the United States in the 1800s. It is a name that does not easily roll off my tongue, even as an adult. I am glad that my mother maintained it if for no other reason than her mother grew it.
Grandmother’s old mimosa is gone now. Fortunately, she did not live to see it whacked down when modern plumbing came along and the well beside it was abandoned and filled with bricks and sand. Nor did she witness the spring storm that ripped down the ancient red cedar tree in the front yard. Perhaps there under the then-young cedar, Grandfather Caleb enjoyed a quiet evening while discussing the day’s events with his young bride. Grandmother would never imagine that the mulberry tree she planted in the back yard would have saplings still alive today and that I have lovingly transplanted some to my own garden 150 miles away.
[Bobby J. Ward grows plants in his yard in Raleigh, North Carolina.]