My grandma used to grow zinnias and nasturtiums in a long strip of a garden in her back yard. As soon as you opened the side door, the colors and fragrance would greet you, instantly brightening the day. The Amarillo, Texas soil was hard caliche, but Grandma had raked and tilled it in preparation for her flowers, so they would have the best chance to grow. She cared for them maternally and took great pride in their beauty. Grandma’s garden was in direct contrast from her years growing up on a dirt farm in Kansas. The zinnias brought her pure joy.
Grandma and I would go to the back yard and stand on the walkway surveying her garden. “I sure wish it would rain,” she’d say. “We really need it.” She talked a lot about rain, the lack of rain and when it was supposed to rain, and then we would turn on the hose and water her plants by hand. “Be sure to give each one a good long drink,” she’d say.
Bending down on her old, arthritic knees, Grandma would pick the weeds that dared to creep into her domain, and as she did, she talked to her zinnia’s as she would a child, “There you go, little girl. Now you’re safe from those bad weeds.”
“Help me up,” she’d say, and I would. Then we would stand on the sidewalk and just look. I can see her now, standing tall, with her red and white checked gingham apron on, squinting into the sun, her detachable sunglasses flipped up, admiring her work, feeling satisfied at a job well done.
“You know you can eat nasturtiums, but they sure are spicy,” she said.
“Why would you eat a flower?” I asked.
“I think some fancy people like to do that, but I just like to look at them. They’re beautiful,” she answered.
Before my grandpa died, he would let us go out to his vegetable garden and use a hoe or rake. It was a his and hers garden situation. I don’t remember as much about his garden because Grandma made me help her outside and in the kitchen, her empire. Not only did she have her flowers, but she also had a peach tree and a pecan tree. Come June, the peaches would be ready to pick, and Grandma would begin her peachapalooza. Peach pie, peach cobbler, peach ice cream, whole peaches, sliced peaches, poached peaches, canned peaches, peach preserves, and jam. It was the same with her pecan tree too, as pecan pie was her real specialty, right up there with homemade cinnamon rolls and oatmeal cookies.
When my girls were little, I had an outside plant or two, and the usual ivy growing in the kitchen window, but I had little time or thought for gardening. I don’t recall feeling any kind of way about plants except for how much trouble they might be. My friend, Chrys, used to have her whole patio covered in plants and I was always in awe. How was she able to do it all with seemingly so little effort and so much joy?
When I moved to Austin, twenty-three years ago, I fell in love with plants again. Even when Boo and I were dating, we would have competitions on who’s plants would grow the fastest and stay alive. And although I would never call Boo Mr. Greenjeans, he has taught me a lot about caring for plants.
Our backyard and deck are home to thirty plus flowering plants that both give me joy and cause me angst. Like Grandma, I fuss over watering or when it will rain and why it hasn’t rained. I pick weeds and prune back. I cover and uncover in the winter, and I coax the baby sprouts in the spring. And as Grandma would, I often stand outside and survey my plants, talking sweetly to them as if they could hear me.
“Will you water my plants in the front yard?” I recently asked Boo.
“They are ‘our’ plants, you know. You’re not the only one who takes care of them.”
So, I corrected my wording to include “our”, but in my heart they are mine. Mine and Grandma’s. And when I see my flowers bloom or a tree branch with buds, I smile knowing Grandma would be proud of me.
The true meaning of the zinnia plant is affection, everlasting love, and remembrance. The zinnia symbolizes qualities that remind us to never take those we love for granted, and whether Grandma knew that or not, she lived it, wholeheartedly with her garden and with me.