The expression on my neighbor’s face was one of near shock. “Oh, no! Now they will surely die!” she shuddered. I was quite puzzled, standing in my back yard and holding the armload of Iris bulbs that she had just given to me. “You never tell someone ‘thank you’ for a plant they give you!”
It would have been comical were it not for the fact that she seemed completely convinced that there was some shred of truth to what she had just said. “You’re kidding?” I replied. “What am I supposed to say if I can’t say “Thank You”?” Her suggestions were all so pitifully lacking that I made no effort to remember any of them, and certainly had no plans to use them in the future.
Who made made such a ridiculous rule, anyway? Is this an odd Southern tradition, or some quirky thing that gardeners seem to have accepted all across the country? And why wasn’t I even aware of it until I was well into my thirties?
Okay, that last question is one that I can probably answer for myself. I was in my thirties before I really became interested in, and involved in gardening. But still, if this were something that were taken seriously by gardeners in the mid-south, at least one of my two plant-loving grandmothers would have shared this bit of information with me.
I’m ashamed to admit it, but I honestly made a halfhearted attempt at this for a brief period of time. I would try using phrases like “This will look great in my shade garden!”, or “I hope it does as well for me as it always has for you.” But in reality, most of the time a “Thank you!” would escape my lips before I realized what I had said. Years of my mother’s training could not be so easily undone.
Why is this such an issue with me and my gardening friends? Because we love to share plants with each other. We’re constantly moving, re-arranging, and pushing the horticultural envelopes. Most often we do most of our plant-sharing when it’s time to divide, or thin-out some of our perennials. That is how my current garden began… with what we Southerners often refer to as “pass-along plants.”
When Richard and I married and bought the house where we now live, our back yard was nearly void of any plant life. There were two trees and a few scraggly patches of grass, nothing more. And until the youngest three of our four boys began to lose interest in playing in the backyard, that’s how it remained. Games of basketball and baseball were not compatible with the survival of plant life. In fact, it was several years after the basketball goal was removed that the Bermuda grass was brave enough to venture into that part of our yard again.
There was, however, one small corner of our back yard, along the fence between the Willow Oak and the front of our storage building, where I decided to try to start a flower bed. And the first plants to go in this bed were pass-along plants from Martha.
Martha was the secretary who worked at the radio station where both Richard and I worked. At that particular time, she and I had been co-workers for about 12 years, and she and Richard had worked together for 22 years. She came to work one morning with sacks of pass-alongs for me. One sack contained bulbs of what she told me were “Snowdrops” and the other sack was filled with divisions of Phlox. I was thrilled, and thanked her profusely. I hadn’t been warned against thanking someone for plants at this point, and if Martha believed that I had broken some sort of plant law, she didn’t scold me for it.
Martha had been working in her flower garden, and had brought me some of her divisions. They were, she told me, spreading so much that they were about to take over her whole flower bed. Looking back on it now, I’m betting that I must have mentioned to Martha my interest in starting a flower garden, and she dug up a considerable amount of what she had in order to get me started.
Martha told me how much sun or shade these plants required, and what time of year I could expect them to bloom. She promised me that they would be easy to care for, and that they would be perfect for a beginning gardener. She was right.
The following Spring I watched as the green tips of the blades of the Snowdrops broke the surface of the soil. I checked the progress on an almost daily basis. And just at the time when she had told me to expect to see blooms… I saw blooms. It was magical. It worked just as it was supposed to. Martha, in my eyes, was a genius!
The following Summer, the Phlox bloomed just as Martha had promised. I followed her advice on removing the spent blooms at the top of the stems, and was rewarded with smaller blooms to follow… just as she had predicted. She had said that the butterflies would be attracted to the Phlox. She was right. She had told me that they would spread, once they became established, and that one day I would have enough to “pass along” to a friend. Right again. My sister, some of my daughters-in-law, and a dozen or so other friends have benefited from Martha’s generosity in giving me those starter plants. That lovely purple phlox is probably growing in gardens from western Kansas to Northwest Mississippi, thanks to her.
One particular snowy day I was reminded again of Martha’s love of flowers. Pink and purple tulips, lilies and a carpet of greenery lay draped every so gently across the top of her ivory-colored casket… a casket that had delicate pink tulip blooms painted at each corner. On Saturday, January 8, 2011, Martha Farrell lost her battle to pancreatic cancer, and hundreds upon hundreds of us lost a very dear friend.
“Bloom where you’re planted” has become one of my favorite phrases, and something that I do my best to try to live by. It was something that Martha did, seemingly with ease, every day that I was privileged to have known her. She was dealt far more than her fair share of difficulties, but she didn’t complain. In fact, she spent the biggest part of her life helping and encouraging others.
As far as the flowers she gave me… I cherish them now more than ever. I think of her each time I see their blooms. I’m grateful that I have something of hers to keep and to pass along to others. And I will forever be glad that I told her “Thank you.” I can only hope that I told her that enough.
“No matter what happens, always be thankful, for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus.” I Thessalonians 5:18 NLT