His sister gave him the plaque after Don survived several bouts of cancer. Try as it might, the disease could not invade Don’s spirit because he and his loved ones made the decision to keep believing in tomorrow. Tomorrow came, and they continue to come, Don says, because of “me and everyone who prayed for me.”
Visitors can see Don’s spirit reflected in his thriving gardens, so vital and strong they look like they’ve been tended for decades. In fact, it’s been just six years since scrub grass and pine was transformed into nine gardens containing hostas, butterfly bushes, day lilies, columbine, clematis, Rose of Sharon and hundreds of other grasses and blossoms. Don also created a nursery patch, where growing bushes, young trees and other plants are nurtured until they’re strong enough to move into other areas of the yard or be given to friends. Don doesn’t care for lawn, however.
Grass is “labor intensive,” he says, “overuses water, and all you do is cut it. Boring.”
And his gardening plan can’t be found on paper. It’s only in his head. “I wouldn’t recommend this,” he quips.
Don seems to have an innate sense of where certain plants and flowers would look good, but he says it’s “trial and error.” He cultivated his green thumb by asking lots of questions and taking note of what grows well in the acidic soil of Cape Cod. Also, he learned how plants assume different characteristics in different soils. For example, he says, “Blue hydrangea are made for the Cape. They turn pink in New York City.”
He suggests would-be gardeners start with simple plants, and build confidence step-by-step. And, he advises, accept plants from other people.
“I’ve taken plants from my daughter in Maine and from my son in Massachusetts. I have a Rose of Sharon that belonged to my in-laws in Cleveland, then was taken to Virginia, and now blooms here in Eastham.”
Gardening is considered by many to be therapeutic, but what is it about gardening that helps inspire a person’s spirit?
“When you garden, you’re growing something from nature – a grass or a flower. You’re making the world a more serene place. You may not be a success in life, but you can be in your garden,” says the Eastham gardener, whose belief in today and tomorrow shows in all areas of his life – his friends and family, and his spectacular gardens. Syl Matthews, who became a master gardener by studying entomology, soil and plant sciences, and biology in upstate New York twenty years ago, describes the spiritual aspects of gardening in this way: “It’s a meditation – whether planting, cleaning up or weeding.” Syl believes that having a green thumb is a myth. “If you can read, you can garden. And talk to other gardeners,” she says.
She became interested in growing plants when she was a young girl watching her uncle’s gardener grow beautiful flowers in his Craigville garden and tend it with seaweed from the ocean. (Dried seaweed makes great mulch, she says.)
She’s been hooked ever since. Like Don, Syl’s lawn is getting smaller and smaller as flowers and bushes crowd out the grass and attract birds and butterflies. The beauty of the flowers, she says, is just one of the pleasures she gets from plants.
To watch her grandchildren plant sunflower seeds and bring friends to watch how they grow, to hear the children learn names of different flowers, to load her daughter’s car with plants – these, she says, are gifts.
Her desire to pass on what she loves and learns prompted Syl to begin offering painting classes.
Her greatest wish, she says, is having everyone on Cape Cod plant, plant, plant…in yards, around stop signs, anywhere that’s barren. The spirituality of gardening might not necessarily be what or how you plant. It’s simply that you plant, and give back to the earth what it has given: life.
Don’s formula for great planting soil:
1/3 peat moss • 1/3 mulch • 1/3 horse manure*
• The water around Cape Cod provides free mulch: seaweed and marsh grass.
• The smaller the seed, the shorter its viability.
• Use sheep manure tea to protect against pests.
• Keep weeds down by underplanting flowers of contrasting colors.
• To keep animals from destroying a garden, plant extra for them.
• Grow Cosmos to attract Goldfinch.
• Build a toad house so they can devour plant-eating garden bugs.
• To control black spot, clean up the soil and spray leaves with baking soda and water.
By Jane Perkins, Spring 2003
Jane Perkins has worked in publishing for 5 years. Her freelance work has been published by Cleis and Arsenal Pulp Press.