Ghosts in the Garden

Spring plantings not only celebrate new life but also help us remember lives that have passed.

By Ken Textor
Illustration by Patrick Corrigan

When the first red-and-green buds of nascent rhubarb poke through the soil in early April, I smile and say hello to Joe. When the threat of frost has passed in mid-May, I once again thank Kay as I take the dahlia bulbs from the cold cellar and plant them in the east-facing bed near the side of the house.

To the uninitiated, all this may sound a little too fanciful — or just plain weird. After all, who gives names to their plants? Well, not me. But like many Maine gardeners, I do have ghosts in my gardens. In fact, some Maine gardeners may have spirits amid their greenery and not even known it. In any case, it’s a little something extra to treasure during our lamentably short growing season.

In the rhubarb patch, the April greeting of Joe began more than fifteen years ago. It was about that time my nearest neighbor called and wondered if I liked rhubarb. “Like a dog loves a bone,” I told him. “Well, for some reason I’ve got rhubarb growing in my compost pile and I’d love to get rid of it,” Joe said. “I can’t stand the stuff.”

For the next several springs, Joe called with the same problem, and I always ended up with some fine rhubarb pies. The situation seemed a little odd to me because Joe was a master gardener who could grow orchids, peaches, and a host of other delicate, normally southern plants on the thin, rocky soil of Maine. I wondered how a man with six decades of gardening experience kept getting this unwanted rhubarb.

Then one autumn, Joe suggested I dig up the rhubarb’s sleeping rhizomes and plant them in my own rhubarb patch. “It’ll save you walking all the way over here when you want to make a pie,” he said as I unearthed a few of the tuberous root masses. Sure enough, next spring I had big, healthy rhubarb plants about fifty feet from our kitchen’s back door. But when I called Joe to thank him again, his wife told me he was in the hospital. He rallied a few times in the months ahead but died later that summer.

The annual spring thank-you to Joe has also taken on extra meaning over the years. After Joe died, his widow encouraged me to keep picking the rhubarb growing in Joe’s now-abandoned compost pile. Within a few years, though, that rhubarb patch died out, leading me to believe Joe had actually been keeping the rhubarb going for years just so he could give away those tasty stalks to his neighbor. And when he knew his days were limited, he bequeathed the rhubarb in its entirety to me.

Similar stories are connected with Kay’s dahlias, Dot’s Siberian irises, and even Jake’s cucumber seeds. Long-gone Kay just wanted “a good home” for her heirloom dahlias. Always-merry Dot got a chuckle out of giving away beautiful flowers. And Jake just suggested a good variety of cucumbers for pickling, a favorite pastime of mine. In each case, the connection was botanically a bit different than Joe’s rhubarb.

But everyone in life is a little bit different and should be remembered as such.

Other Mainers evidently subscribe to this way of planting connections to the past, too. When I talk with other gardeners, it doesn’t take long to find out that a nearby dogwood tree was planted in memory of Fido — sometimes with Fido’s ashes mixed right in with the initial shot of compost and fertilizers. Or perhaps a patch of flowering catnip was planted at the edge of a field in the memory of Mittens. Lone apple trees tend to be a commemoration of all those times someone saddled up Old Dobbin and trotted off for a late afternoon ride away from life’s troubles.

Humans sometimes get a long-term memorial in a planting, too. I know at least one couple who planted an elm in remembrance of their departed Uncle Elmer. More than a few have found a nice sheltered spot for a stunning azalea to remind them of a departed mother or aunt. Indeed, the ancient concept of the “Tree of Life” has led to the planting of local sycamores, cedars, or ashes.

If all this sounds a little too morbid for the joys of spring, I beg to differ. 
Most memorial services these days are called “a celebration” of someone’s life. So what could be more celebratory than the rejuvenation that spring plantings and blossomings bring? Besides, the tradition of flowers at a graveside is thousands of years old. Like some of my neighbors, I’m just skipping the inclusion of a cold, hard headstone in my remembrances.

Ken Textor has been a contributing editor at Down East since 1998 and has written for a wide array of publications.