Her garden was like her proud Victorian house, overcast with the erect, old willow oaks that lined the streets of Tyler Hill, laid out with wide green corridors and winding passages that led to nothing anyone could discern — except perhaps an obscure little clump of daffodils or cyclamen given to her 30 or 40 years ago by a long-dead friend.
Maud Killian’s yard was her geography, her European vacation, her Caribbean cruise. She could recount, after so many decades of living there, its every limitation, its every possibility. Though not extravagant, it was rich in circumstance and ceremony. The red-lipped concrete frog that overlooked the dry, broken pond was painted with a fresh coat of green each spring to match the vivid emerald explosion of her yard.
With due patience and courtesy, she listened to the advice of the budding garden writer who lived next door, but they both knew there was little he could tell a gardener so familiar with her place in the world. He often found himself embarrassed after taking more from her yard than he had offered in return.
And though he never admitted it, he envied her long grand path of daffodils, jonquils and narcissus, which trailed in two lines from her rear steps until it vanished in the back corner of her yard, nearly a city block away. There must have been 10, 000 bulbs — a parade of yellow cups, white collars and orange ruffs.
As every spring gave way to Alabama’s many summers, the blooms on the daffodils dried to a thin brown skin. And Maud’s young neighbor watched with horror and amusement as she bent to neatly tie each clump of daffodil leaves, so that her trail of flowers became a trail of carefully-laid green knots.
She said her mother did it that way, and it was why her daffodils bloomed so beautifully. He knew better. The still green leaves must ripen. The bulbs must draw down the last living drops of sun before they slip into that long summer sleep. But what advantage could there be in this tight twist of leaves? It was a useless practice with no recognized horticultural merit, and he might have told her so.
Still, she went about it heedlessly in her pressed tweed skirt, stooping painfully at each bulb to plait the limp leaves sprawled across the cold ground, each cross of the leaves a memory of the spring that passed, a hope for the spring to come. It wasn’t in her upbringing to complain how hard it must have been, at nearly 80 years, to maintain such a folly.
As is often the case when a body has spent so much time watching worms make rich black soil from withered leaves, Maud had no need to be anything but frank. She talked about the tumors she fought back again and again in these last decades of her life as if they were no more or less frightful than the briars poised to take her favorite peony.
When everyone, including Maud, agreed that the steep old house and hillside garden were too much for her to manage, she bought a plain brick patio home with a small patch of stiff, untested clay. All it needed was her short, single-hand hoe, which she had packed along with her best and most carefully chosen family heirlooms.
She planted camellias and pansies, found a place for the lurid frog and her most valued peony and set a young tree in the midst of it, the only tree I remember seeing in the inviolate grass-and-concrete yards of her new neighborhood.
She didn’t seem the least bit anxious, in her 90th year, to see the tree mature. I imagine she planted it there for nothing more than the pure necessity of planting it, for the pleasure of working in time with that great motion that every spring, for no apparent profit or reason, regreens the soggy earth.
Every year, before the pride of spring is lost in the tangle of summer, I think of Maud. She died, just shy of spring and 93.
I recall her old garden as I try to find a place in my own for long-forgotten bulbs and once-loved flowers, wondering how I might create a corridor grand enough to show off such small and obscure things. And I remember her again as I lean toward the sweet smell of earth, tying up daffodil leaves.
Gulf Coast Almanac
Signs of the Season
Like clockwork, the Gulf Coast transitions from a dry, hot American Summer to a wet and sweaty Gulf Summer in the third week of June. By the end of the month, expect daily showers, cooler days and breathlessly hot nights.
In late June, take cuttings from tomatoes and sow melons for an excellent fall crop. There’s still time for planting okra, peas, eggplants, basil and other hot weather vegetables.
Water well, but infrequently. Droughts are deadly in early June, but fungal diseases from frequent irrigation are worse. Turn the sprinkler off in late June; daily showers will more than suffice.
Ripe for Picking
June is the ideal time for an American Summer harvest, from beans and cucumbers to peppers and okra. It’s the last big month for Gulf Coast tomatoes. Get ’em while you can.
Bloom of the Month
Keep an eye out for your favorite hydrangeas, one of the Gulf Coast’s “big three” shrubs. The bluest hydrangeas in the world grow in the acidic soils around Mobile Bay.
Green Thumb Events
June 4 – July 30: Wonderful Wednesdays
Bellingrath Gardens & Home offers workshops for burgeoning green thumbs once a week.
Bellingrath Gardens & Home • 12401 Bellingrath Gardens Rd. 973-2217
June 21: Hypertufa Containers
9 a.m. – 11 a.m. Create your own unique garden planters perfect for succulents and herbs.
Mobile Botanical Gardens • 5151 Museum Dr. 342-0555
Bill Finch has been the voice of authority on Gulf Coast gardening and the environment for more than two decades. Talk to him every Sunday morning, from 9 a.m. until 11 a.m. on the Gulf Coast Sunday Morning show on Talk Radio 106.5 FM. Don’t miss him and WKRG weatherman John Nodar cutting up in the garden every Friday on News 5 at noon.
text by Bill Finch • illustrations by kelan mercer