While cleaning a bookshelf the other day, I came across my Aunt Eunice’s one-volume garden encyclopedia, something we saved from her house after she died three years ago.
There was an old envelope inside to help her mark a favorite page, a discovery that made me smile in recognition. This is a family habit, apparently. People are always giving me proper bookmarks made of bronze or leather, but I usually end up slipping a drugstore receipt or business card into a book to remind me where I’ve left off.
On one side of the envelope, my aunt had scribbled reminders of her latest doctors’ appointments. The other side contained notes from a weekly gardening radio show she enjoyed during the last years of her life.
The envelope said much about how Eunice managed the challenges of aging. As physical decline and medical concerns claimed more of her time, she continued to think about gardening, which is a way to think about the future.
Her first notation, “Recommended for winter blooms,” told me she’d probably jotted down the radio host’s instructions one autumn, in a week not unlike this one, as summer’s bright colors were starting to fade from the landscape. She was looking ahead to chilly days and a blazing fireplace, not with dread, but expectation.
“Abutilon plant — needs sun — moist fertile soil — attracts hummingbirds,” she’d penciled in a steady hand.
Abutilon is also known as Chinese Bell Flower because of its big, showy blossoms that would look right at home hanging from a church steeple. “Southern Plants for Landscape Design,” my favorite garden primer, says that abutilon blooms from summer through frost. Eunice, a bird lover, would have thought the plant’s appeal for hummers a good bonus.
I don’t remember seeing abutilon in Eunice’s garden, and I doubt she got around to planting any. Her gardening days were pretty much over when she scribbled a botanical wish list on that envelope, but she knew that thinking about gardens was often almost as good as planting them.
Just as there are fantasy football leagues at this time of year — gridiron contests played entirely in the realm of imagination — so there are aspiring green thumbs who plan, plant and harvest gardens that exist only in the daydreamer’s head.
Fatherhood and career give me little time for autumn gardening right now. But my horticultural fantasy life is a rich one, which is why I’ve welcomed fall as I always do — by buying the latest farmer’s almanacs and thinking of what I might grow.
I have the almanac open now to an extended feature, “Little-Known Legumes.” It’s an odd duck who dreams of beans in his spare time, but my Aunt Eunice, in doing so, lived to be 94.
Danny Heitman is on Twitter, @Danny_Heitman.