Valerie with her opuntia.

By Stan Cutler

Valerie, my wife, provides an environment for plants to thrive, ever alert for yellowing leaves, sneaky strangler vines, and insects. Lucky, indeed, is the plant Valerie puts in her garden. If she thinks a plant can do better elsewhere, she moves it. Her satisfaction comes from seeing them bloom.  As a consequence, she has way too many plants. They are everywhere. Yesterday she thumbed dirt into spaces between the flat rocks around the pond rim. Then she stuck teensy little bits of low-growing plants in the spaces. In other words, she thinks every unpaved surface is a nursery.

I have to be careful where I walk. Woe betide any galoot whose boot touches a green thing. You would think, after all these years, that she’d trust me to walk in one of her flower beds without supervision. You need the ankles of an acrobat to cross from one side of our little front yard to the other, a treacherous 21 feet. She will yell if I put a foot wrong, “Stanley! Not there! Not there!” Sheesh! No need to get so upset. She has lots of plants, they are growing everywhere.

Our property is long and narrow, the back yard shaded under two big red maples. The sun traverses from back to front, offering different amounts of energy at different times of the day. If Valerie finds a plant in need of more sunlight, it is likely to end up in the front yard because that’s where there the sun shines longest. For the unwary, for those who care not for the welfare of her charges, our front yard is a minefield. There is a foot-wide strip of dirt to the right of the short walkway to our front door, the minefield is to the left. In the morning, when I have to walk out to the sidewalk to retrieve the newspaper, my pants get soaked by the plants on either side. See what I mean?

The front yard could be a lawn, but that’s not the style on our street where the houses are set back only a short distance from the sidewalk. If you walk the four blocks up from the Highland Avenue station to Germantown Avenue, you will see more gardens than mown grass.  Valerie’s front garden is completely covered in green stuff. It’s not that it’s overgrown, it’s just that every plant is thriving. The other gardens show more evidence of design, more spaces where plants are not wanted. But having a manicured space is contrary to Valerie’s purpose. Her garden is a place for plants, the design evolves according to their needs.

The backyard begins behind the garage on Meade Street.  Those yellow flowers you see in the picture are opuntia humifusa, a variety of cactus that thrives in Philadelphia. That narrow strip of soil where they grow and grow and grow gets light when the sun rises above the garage in the morning. The brilliant yellow flowers are spectacular. They turn into edible red fruit that you can harvest in the Fall. I like the opuntia. But unless it is pruned and restrained, the thorns are a hazard. The daylilies on the other side of the path are often wet. See what I mean?

That patch of red over Valerie’s shoulder in the picture is a potted poinsettia, the kind sane people throw out with the trash after Christmas. Valerie decided that was unjust, no way to treat a living thing. She read up and learned that the poinsettia is a hardy perennial that requires very little water and will happily grow scarlet leaves in the Springtime if you keep it in a dark place over the winter. What you can’t see in the picture, between Valerie and the poinsettia, are a potted stephanotis with fragrant white flowers most of the summer and a potted heliconia that has weird, bright red flowers in midwinter. Both of them, of course, along with a hundred other potted plants, some enormous, require transportation to and from the house every Fall and Spring.

I whine and complain, just to keep her honest, to remind her that people also need space. She does prune things back when they get out of hand, and she understands that my complaints are a way of teasing her. After all, a marriage without a little friction is boring.  I wouldn’t have her or the plants any other way. When I complain to the gardener, “Too many plants!” she replies to the writer, “Too many words.” She has a point.

Stan Cutler is a local novelist, gardener’s helper and volunteer for the Friends of the Chestnut Hill Library.

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