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The Garden of Life

A novice gardener learns some valuable lessons

This summer my dog ate my dogwood. Yep, one day Luke, my lovable mutt, thought it would be fun to eat half the root ball. Another tree, gone. But I'm the one who belongs in the doghouse. Because the real problem is this: As a gardener, I am an epic failure.

See also: Grow herbs, feel better.

Stone wall built by AARP colleague George Blooston

George Blooston's stone wall. — Photo by Quentin Nardi

I water too much or too little. I prune the wrong stuff. Not knowing a sunflower stalk from an eastern redbud, I saved the former and chopped off the top of the latter. And then there was the bonsai tree. My friend and colleague George Blooston — a Dr. Dolittle of plants — gave it to me when he left on medical leave. If ever I wanted a plant to thrive, that was it. I think George knew its chances were slim. George was right.

My black thumb never used to bother me. My career was thriving; my family, reasonably so. The fake trees in my living room were a lovely, if dusty, green. And — I'll admit it — I liked watching my neighbors' underground sprinkler system go off in the rain.

But something changed this summer. It started with the bonsai. I felt I'd let George down. And I began to wonder: Why was every crape myrtle in my neighborhood alive with hot-pink blossoms — except for mine? Why, despite my best efforts at mulching and watering, were the leaves on my new cherry trees falling off? And, most perplexing of all, why were my evergreens turning yellow?

Then it hit me: Some people actually take care of their gardens. Not just weeding here or fertilizing there but lavishing the same TLC on their plants as they do on their family, friends, and pets. And guess what I learned this summer? When you love your plants, they love you back. That's when the joy of gardening hits you.

George was a joyous gardener. He was joyous about life, and quick to wink at its absurdities. He was also a gifted money editor. We lost him to cancer in August. He was the bravest person I've ever known.

George's determined spirit was especially evident in the garden wall he built, stone by stone, over the course of two summers. Puttering outdoors was, for him, a peaceful pursuit. For those of us who admire botanical beauty but aren't, like George, a natural with nature, he also planted the seed for a story about how to grow your own indoor garden.

Last weekend, feeling down, I tended to my trees. I spent 45 minutes in the hot sun, pruning the buds off my crape myrtle. I didn't expect a payoff. And then one morning, several days later, I looked out the window to see a wondrous sight: my crape myrtle, ablaze with color, brilliant pink blossoms bursting forth. It had been a sad week, but here was hope. Here, once more, was life.

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