by Mimi Hedl

Whenever I take a trip, for as long as I’ve lived on Strawdog, some part of the garden goes with me. Usually I pack those things in my suitcase and TSA leaves a note, I pretend they’ve given me words of appreciation, for the fragrance of the melons, the interesting bulbs, the pasta dough, the bottle of Damson port, or the pounds of asparagus. And they so consistently leave me notes, I wonder if someone has fallen for my magical charms.

On my latest venture, last week, to Savannah, Georgia, I lined the bottom two-thirds of my suitcase with garden stuff, things I’d planned on since my last trip in November, when my son-in-law and I had gone to the city compost site to load up his immaculate SUV with bags filled with compost. Kerry loves to tell stories, and he loves to listen. So while we loaded these bags, I told Kerry the story of my dad’s 80th birthday present.

Mom and Dad had moved to Prescott, Arizona, to retire. They lived in a tidy ranch house, in a sub-division with a golf course as its draw. Dad loved to putter in the yard. He raised a big garden in Iowa while we grew up, and Mom did the canning. But when they built their new dream house, they didn’t want to disturb the unity of the grass, our great American crop, so they planted a postage stamp garden that may have been Lisa’s sandbox, right near the back of the house, out of the mower’s reach. There Dad grew a tomato plant or two, a few marigolds.

Down in Prescott, nothing grew well. Every time I visited, he complained. I commiserated. One day I asked Dad if he knew of a horse ranch. He did, only a few miles from their house. Later that day we took a drive. We walked around, looking at the horses, admiring the composted manure. He mourned the fact he had no way to haul manure home. I made a decision. I would fill his 1978 Chevrolet Impala
with grocery bags of composted horse manure, park it in front of the house, with a Happy Birthday poster inside the windshield. He would be so happy. A perfect gift for an octogenarian.

I had a few days until his birthday. I secured all the paper bags I needed from their house and the neighbors. I found a couple of 5-gallon buckets and a shovel, plus plastic sheeting to line the seats and the trunk. And my Happy Birthday sign. Neither Mom nor Dad knew what I planned on doing.

July 23 arrived. Bright and early, I snuck out of the house feeling like a teenager again, loaded the car, and headed for the horse ranch. You’d find it amazing how many bags of horse poop you can fit in a ’78 Chevrolet Impala. Granted, it doesn’t come close to what the bed of our ’62 International could hold, but, still, this represented a significant load. The bags stacked one on top of the other, squeezed two
deep in the back seat, on the floor and enough in the passenger seat that I felt as if a large man was riding with me. The young horse dudes gave me strange smiles. I smiled back. I rode with power, power only a gardener recognizes.

When I arrived home with my birthday present, the folks still slept. I quietly snuck back into the house, giggling with delight. Dad had his routine. Mom spent much of her life trying to rush him. It never worked. So I waited longer than I would have liked to have Dad reach the point where he had shed his pajamas for his work clothes. Then I said, “Would you like to see your birthday present?” Both Mom and
Dad looked quizzically at me. And I walked them to the front door and out to the driveway.​

I’ll never know what they truly thought. I can only report what they said. Shock would seem like a mild word to describe their reactions. I think they both worried I’d never get the smell out of the car ─ granted, it took awhile ─ and how clean would I leave it. But my dad burst into a shit-eating grin, and busted out laughing. While my mother exclaimed, “What are you going to do with it all?” my Dad sputtered out, “A car filled with horse shit.”

I spent the rest of the day hauling manure to every part of the front and back yards, vacuuming the car and deciding what perennials to plant in front. I remember Russian sage, but nothing else. I do know on subsequent trips and through phone calls, Dad never felt discouraged about his gardens. They thrived. And that story will stay with me.

Kerry shook his head at me. He knows how I clean and probably wondered about the mess I’d left. (None, I repeat, zero, nada) “That’s why we lined the SUV with this large tarp,” he said. (No one knows the freedom an old pickup gives you.) We had to make three trips to the compost site to fill the 8’ x 4’ raised bed we had repositioned in full sun, another story, where before it had sat in complete shade. My daughter had told me Brady, my grandson, wanted to plant a garden, so I had come prepared with seeds, and Kerry made sure I would have a garden. I knew nothing would germinate until spring hit Georgia, but seeds, my friends, have more patience than Job.

The squirrels in their neighborhood rule the roost. The 100-foot trees provide a veritable gymnastic course. They investigate anything and everything. After my November trip, Kerry told me the garden didn’t stand a chance against the squirrels. HMMMM….I thought. And thought. …

Thinned bamboo grove, source of all things bamboo.

When I packed my bags last week, I put forty bamboo canes between 25”- and 30”-long in my suitcase, after my gardening shoes, two gallons of compost, Brazilian verbena, purple poppy mallow, chives, and Tokyo long-bunching onions. I had a bouquet for my daughter of Lenten rose and Roman hyacinths, in a box, safe and sound. A bottle of elder flower wine for Kerry. Garden supplies.

My squirrel plan included an obstacle course. If I put the canes in such a way, with twigs sticking out to the sides, the squirrels wouldn’t want to mess with the garden. Nothing had germinated until mid-February, reported my daughter, but now the snow peas flourished, the lettuce was ready, and the bok choy was going to seed producing delicious yellow flowers, which Logan, my other grandson devoured. How many times did I repeat, “Always ask before you eat anything outside. Some things will make your stomach hurt.” To which he replied every few seconds, “Can I eat this?” And every time I responded, “Not that.”

So far so good, goes the report from Savannah. We didn’t see any squirrels in the garden while I visited, and it’s still clean as of now. We’ll see. Once the alliums and perennials grow up, they’ll hide the bamboo canes but the canes will still provide a deterrent. We’ll see. Or did I say that already? Seems like we gardeners repeat those words over and over, looking for a success story, a solution, a way to victory. Who knows what my Savannah suitcase will carry next trip, but gardening gloves will sit first on the list, ready to touch the earth, and make me feel at home. I look forward to love letters from TSA.