Twelve years ago, I persuaded my husband to plant a hydrangea in the garden. When I married him, a gardener of amazing skills with a deep appreciation for the beauty of a diverse garden, he grew plants flaunting texture, shape, and color. Yet marriage often taps into the creative juices of newlyweds who have joined together late in life. Creativity certainly tapped into ours.
During the early years we lost ourselves in gardening, side by side, a team, digging, planting, weeding, pruning, watering, deadheading. The end of the day would find us sitting under a shade tree, dirty, sweaty, drinking red wine, feeling the intoxication of wet crimson, the color of one of our crepe myrtles, savoring the warmth of a smooth wine, mapping out more changes. I often brought up the subject of hydrangeas. I thought we needed a few here and there.
Behind the house, we ripped up the lawn and used a stash of bricks my husband had stored for years to make curving walkways. Most of the paths he put down without me, one brick at a time, the sun bearing down on his uncovered head. I tried to help, but my bricklaying skills didn’t meet his high standards.
I’d been living in Illinois when we married. It had been my home for six years, and during those six years, I’d traveled back to Georgia only once, a trip that lasted three days: one day to fly in, one day to attend a funeral, and one day to fly home. Those years in Illinois gave me an appreciation of both the South I’d left behind and the rare beauty of Illinois.
Influenced by Illinois gardens, we planted hostas. Influenced by our love affair with flowers, we added foxglove, Mexican petunia, hibiscus, a wide variety of daylily, variegated grass, and several fruit and vegetable plants. Influenced by our love for each other, we aimed for a disheveled, overgrown garden, one without rules, without strict borders. We aimed for a hidden place where magic lives and breathes and glows like fireflies.
My husband is the keeper of about four hundred camellia bushes, his specialty. He was taught by the great man himself: the late Hulyn Smith of Valdosta, Georgia. When it came to camellias, I never offered advice. My husband needed none.
Encouraging the manicured garden to grow wild and free like a hippie in the late sixties, hair loose and flowing, feet bare, we watched change and growth in flowerbeds and in ourselves. Our garden evolved, moved slowly from a formal and manicured place to a garden that offered shelter to mystical creatures, a carefree garden that sang and danced throughout winter, spring, summer, and fall, a garden that welcomed our adopted dogs and cats, a paradise that broke all the established rules of gardening.
Hydrangeas remind me of my childhood. We bought a few, one here, one there, and I received a lovely pink one as a gift for speaking to a group about my novel. I thought we were putting together a darned good showing until we stepped foot on Martha’s Vineyard.
Hydrangeas crush and bruise the island. The bluest blues. The pinkest pinks. A seductive blending of the palest pink, the pink of a baby’s lips melting into an antique white, the soft color of a faded handkerchief, a floral innocence, a lovely recipe of new and old. Hydrangeas in front of wide open windows. Hydrangeas dripping over fences. Hydrangeas painting walkways. Hydrangeas in colors so brilliant I taste them. Truly. I’m not exaggerating.
Once, I stopped near the harbor and lost myself in a profound pallet— Phthalo turquoise on some blooms, ultramarine blue and purple on other blooms. The taste of blueberries filled my mouth, coming from every direction. I swallowed, thinking I was too old to be seduced by a flower. When I turned away from the blooms, the taste disappeared.
Am I a bit like my son who sees music in color? Or am I simply under the spell of Martha’s Vineyard’s luscious flowers?
I don’t know whether to plant more hydrangeas in our eccentric garden or simply give it up. Last night I dreamed of a hydrangea as dark as blackberries blooming over Brody’s grave in the rear garden. I thought my dog came to me and licked my face. I tasted blackberries.
I’ll tell you about the writing sessions in another post. I have never been to anything quite like them.
Brenda Sutton Rose
Author of Dogwood Blues