A Letter to Mr Palm (My First Gardening Mentor)

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Mr. & Mrs. Palm’s home and garden.
Mr. Milton Palm: my childhood horticultural mentor.
Dear Mr. Palm,
I miss you a lot and it’s good that we can talk again like this even if you’ve been gone for many years. If you don’t know it already, I think about you a lot. The conversations we had about soil physics and the lives of plants really stuck with me. I guess our meandering conversations about history, observation, and nature really meant a lot to my growing mind. Those are still a residue in my world and they will always be there. I return to our conversations often but you’re not there anymore.
Did you know that I named my retail seed shop after you? I thought for a long time that I should name it after Grandma Virginia but then I realized she wasn’t the seed person. She always bought her annuals in flats.
You taught me about the germination process and how to get seeds to sing and dance for me. (I mean germinate. You know that’s what I mean though, don’t you?) For some reason I still have your seed flats and cold frames in my mind. Maybe next year I’ll finally build a few simple flats and a basic cold frame like the one you had at the base of the rock wall near the stairs from the upper gardens. You’d like to see that, wouldn’t you? I don’t think I can make that seventeenth-century Buddhist temple you had there living amongst the grapes on your arbor though. I still cannot believe you made that for fun one winter. You were tickled by the idea that no one your age was building those things in Milwaukie.
You were a trailblazer.
I remember you telling me again and again about the importance of native grasses. You dreamed of a time when people would plant grass gardens and the grass could grow freely with wildflowers. Whenever I see amazing meadow designs I always think of you. How sad it is that you’re not around to see them, but I am here, and they will always remind me of you—as do the pollinators.
The pollinators are struggling now, but you told me that would happen. I remember it’s why you were so concerned about suburban gardens and the overuse of chemicals. It’s why we spent so much time together in your gardens just looking at insects. I was amazed at how many there were, and that I’d never noticed them before, but that’s because your garden was a safe place for them.
The chair at my desk in my office is your old oak chair. It once held a dictionary you so loved and other books you were reading at that time. I have one of your favorite dictionaries too. Yes, I use the Internet a lot now, but I still need to look randomly at words for fun. The chair is paired with Grandma’s old kitchen table. Do you remember it? She used it as her storage bench in the garage. It was beside the back door. Whenever she was working on something it’s where she’d stage the things she needed to get the job done. For some reason I felt that pairing it with your chair would bring me good luck. The business is growing, but it’s not easy. I suppose life is painful and sometimes we struggle. You taught me that too. While I work and sort seeds I think of you and smile. I know how much you’d like what I’m doing.
You were an amazing neighbor to Grandma. Thank you for bringing the beautiful widow roses and for talking to her about documentaries and National Geographic articles. She was a woman ahead of her time, and you always knew how much I took after her. I might be crusty and grumpy at times, but I still have her heart, the heart of a poet. She liked you too because you respected her and treated her as an intellectual equal. I know that was important to her.
As I think now of gardening I wish you could be here. There are so many things I’d like to ask you. I would ask you about your muses and inspirations and I think that you’d just look at me and say something like, “Annie, now why would I fuss with that sort of thinking? I’ve got plenty of other things to think about and do.” I can close my eyes and see your grin, it was nice and broad, and then you’d show me your pretty teeth as your grin morphed into a big smile. I used to love how much you’d tease me about thinking too much when you were cursed by the same thing.
When you got sick I was so upset that I couldn’t come over to see you. During your funeral and afterwards I cried a lot because I was devastated that I hadn’t been able to say goodbye. I still remember when I saw you last though. It wasn’t like my last conversation with Grandma Virginia, but it wasn’t bad. I think the cancer must have been starting then because you didn’t look well. We still made the most of it though—talking about plants and books.
At your funeral I remember your minister told us about how you were an agnostic but you went to his church just in case. Then he told us about when you’d telephoned him late at night, waking he and his wife up, because your night-blooming cactus was in bloom. I tried growing a Selenicereus grandiflorus from seed this year and it worked. I think I neglected it though so I may need to begin again. You know I will make it eventually. I want to call and wake people up too when it blooms but I’m probably more likely to post pictures of the occurrence on Facebook. Oh, how you would hate Facebook!
My mind is still all over the place and my garden shows a vast array of my green interests. Someday I will have another herb garden too—just like the one you made for me when I was a girl. I was too young to understand all of those plants well, but you gave them to me and that was a gift I’ll never forget. You were the first man to give me a garden of my own—albeit a portable one. It was quite glamourous that summer up on the deck in my treehouse overlooking the creek. That herb garden you gave me changed me and opened up something really important inside of me.
I have new mentors now and I hope you don’t mind—maybe you brought them to me? I think you’d like them a lot. We’re all plant nerds and many are word nerds too. We talk of plant exploration and seed collection. Sometimes—with others—we just go around on nursery tours testing out our botanical Latin. I was doing ok with that but a lot of stress threw me off my game. I hope to get back on that ball again soon so that I can be more comfortable with my green people again. I like that song and dance a lot. You know how often I wanted to get lost in your garden with you. I’m an adult now and I still seek out that exact same kind of pleasure. I am not alone though—not at all.
When it comes to my design style I’m inspired by art and nature. You would probably tell me that’s impractical, but I think it’s because I live in the city and it’s different here. (You’d have to agree with me on that front.) I learned a lot from you though about nature, recreating it, and then embellishing it a bit. Your soil lectures taught me how that was all possible. I remember you taught me about the movement of the sun too. Maybe I’m not that impractical after all. I know that you would have liked to see more food here in my garden. I do have a fig tree at least and I’m not finished yet. (Your dried fruits during our long discussions were the best. Maybe someday I’ll finally get around to making my own dehydrated fruit but I probably won’t make my own industrial-sized dryer with an old engine. I do live in the city. I doubt my neighbors would care for that kind of ingenuity.)
I’m so grateful to have known you Mr. Palm. You made my youth a happier place and you helped me to better understand that I was passionate about something my parents didn’t quite understand. I needed that and you were a good friend to me. Long before I knew about other weird kids with elderly best friends, you were my BFF.
Thank you.
It was sad watching as the developments encroached more and more upon your privacy and garden. 
The hardy Fuchsia and the gate to Grandma Virginia’s are all gone now. I have only this photo and the many happy memories. Thank you again.
(The Grow Write Guild is a creative writing club for people who garden. It’s a series of bi-weekly writing prompts created by garden author and blogger Gayla Trail. I’m starting out late with the series but hope to catch up soon. It’s just what this blogger needed for some summer fun.)




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