In the middle of April, long before the tall salvias formed flower buds that would open in May to rival the blue of an Argentine sky, flocks of hummingbirds were still hundreds of miles away in warmer climates … unaware that wild columbine had been waiting for them since March. By the time they finally arrived here their biggest fan was gone from his Hillsborough garden. After a brief illness, Randy Dunson passed away early one morning, and I’m certain I heard his “farewell.”
Only 62, Randy was too young to leave his favorite places out among the flowers and herbs blooming along fragrant sun-warmed paths. He and his wife Joleen built a house filled with windows and surrounded themselves with nature so that birds and butterflies were easy to see and enjoy, especially from Randy’s office.
With the help of a motorized wheelchair he had managed a business career from home. The commute to work was an easy one but the office also reflected two of his favorite hobbies: mystery novels and local craft beers filled an entire wall of shelves. Sometimes on a hot summer afternoon he would share a bottle with me.
For over 10 years I worked with him to maintain and enhance the gardens the two of them enjoyed. If the weather was good he usually came out into the yard with his best cigar and a favorite book. As he read we would often be in the garden within shouting distance.
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While I pruned the roses and deadheaded the unruly red salvia border we might discuss politics or the latest Sherlock Holmes mystery. When the 2017 political scene took a downward spiral I felt his frustration even when I wasn’t there. If the butterflies were late in April or the hummingbirds had migrated too soon in October he would have the answer, for he was part of a network of avid observers sharing the latest news. The answer was a quick phone call away.
Like all good partnerships that survive the test of time, our working relationship had its ups and downs. Sometimes we disagreed about the ever present deer, the ones that came out of the woods on summer evenings to devour the succulent buds of the hostas. For a while a giant hedge of rosemary and African blue basil discouraged the deer from the tea roses. Pungent fish emulsion fertilizer and Joleen’s deer repellent spray worked now and then.
When the pine trees grew too tall and the bee balm began to fade it was time to transplant. Soon hummingbirds had to find that new sun drenched spot by the driveway where the flowers grew lush and tall, overtaking a white climbing rose. It soon became a favorite summer reading spot. Moving around under the changing shade from a tall river birch Randy could watch the hummingbirds even better. As the garden grew I would clip back maple trees and swear among the missing tops of the tiger lilies. A fence around the yard would cost a fortune so I found a few choice four letter words instead.
Over the course of 10 years I learned to take Randy’s “crusty” side with a grain of salt. I’m sure he had many moments of great frustration. I know that I prefer to work in my garden alone so I’m certain that If he were able he would have been there with a shovel instead of me. Surely It was difficult to give me such freedom in this, his favorite space. Yet, in spite of his physical limitations he was positive about life, celebrating the good stuff and not once threatening to turn the hose on me if I goofed up.
I was free to make changes and choices in the garden if need be. When the tall blue salvias threatened to overtake their corner of the flower bed and needed to be thinned I pulled out the extras and saved what I could. That pale blue “Argentine Sky” selection is unique to their garden, and probably planted when the house was built. From a bucket of discarded stems I introduced it to my sunny border where it blooms among other blue salvias and bee balm. I have yet to find it available in a nursery. The hummingbirds fight to own the space when it blooms!
According to Webster’s dictionary a garden is a “piece of ground, usually close to a house, for the growing of fruits, flowers or vegetables.” The French le jardin sounds lovelier by far. Thomas Jefferson believed there was no more noble profession (or pastime) than that of the gardener. For Jefferson I bet there was no place he would rather be. I think Randy felt the same.
No matter our ability or disability, Nature always finds a way of renewing us, healing our woes and helping us forget the stress and difficulties we face each day, If only to make us pause and feel the breeze, catch the fragrance of a blossom or the song of a bird. And the seeds of inspiration are sown.
Let’s all work to create more access to Nature and garden spaces both big and small, some wild and others designed for those confined to the indoors whether a nursing home, hospitals or house. With just a courtyard or rooftop garden folks might sit among the flowers and dream. Even a window for watching butterflies and birds inspires wonder and chases away the loneliness.
As for me I’ll remember my good friend whenever the hummingbirds fill my garden as they do today. I’ve heard it said that old gardeners never die … they just go to seed. I’ll look for them all when they return to my garden each year with the arrival of spring.
Please be in touch and cherish this beautiful season.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Sally Boesch is a Durham native who has lived in Bahama since 1980. She lives in a remodeled 1908 "Carolina" farmhouse and an ever-spreading garden. She works as a gardener to protect the rural landscape here and has been writing a column that has appeared in The Herald-Sun since 2008.