Some weeks ago, with my family homebound to fight the pandemic, the afternoon mail brought a new set of face masks and a small package of garden seeds, which seemed to sum up the peril and the promise of the summer ahead.
We welcomed the masks as a grudging necessity of the times. But it’s the seeds, now planted in a newly cleared flowerbed, that have helped sustain us this month in such a troubled time.
The seed packet was billed as a pollinator mix — a bit of this and that meant as a varied buffet for bees and butterflies. Into the ground went Cheiranthus allionii (Siberian Wallflower), Cynoglossum amabile (Forget-Me-Not), Callistephus chinensis (China Aster), Echinacea purpurea (Purple Coneflower), Linum perenne (Blue Flax), Coreposis lanceolata (Lance Leaved Coreopsis), Gaillardia pulchella (Indian Blanket), Papaver rhoeas (Corn Poppy Mix), Ocimum basillicum (Sweet Basil), Reseda odorata (Sweet Mignonette), Phacelia tanacetifolia (Lacy Phacelia), Rudbeckia amplexicaulis (Clasping Coneflower), Rudbeckia hirta (Black-eyed Susan), Ratibida columnifera (Mexican Hat), Oenothera biennis (Evening Primrose), Coreopsis tinctoria (Plains Coreopsis), Aster novae-angliae (New England Aster), and Monarda fistulosa (Bergamot).
Our son, home from college, didn’t bother to read the common names of the flowers as he slit open the seed packet and spread the contents over the freshly tilled soil. He had glanced at the Latin nomenclature, pleasantly mystified by the music of an ancient tongue.
Latin, the durable language of botany, is one of the abiding pleasures of gardening. Just reading aloud from a seed packet, garden catalog or horticulture manual can seem a kind of incantation — a liturgical prayer for the help of ground and sky in guiding a garden’s destiny.
It seemed unlike my son, often insatiably curious, to avoid the details of what he was planting, but he said he’d rather be surprised by what managed to sprout.
No doubt he was right, in this year of unexpected dark turns for humanity, to reclaim surprise as a good thing for the soul.
And so, in self-imposed breaks from the bleak news cycle, we’ve been spending time on the porch, sipping coffee and surveying the flower bed to see what might turn up. We’ve noticed a few familiar plants — tall and green, with a sharp acid scent — that seem intent on climbing to the clouds like Jack’s fabled beanstalk.
“I think these are tomato plants,” our son mentioned one afternoon as he hovered over the leggy stalks with a watering can.
The plants do look like tomato vines, though we won’t know for sure until they blossom and fruit. Had the mail-order company fallen asleep on the job, allowing tomato seeds into our packet of ornamentals?
My wife has a different theory. Our son had added a fresh batch of humus from our compost bin to the flower bed. Maybe some tomato seeds had survived in the compost and germinated.
We’ll see what happens. These days, it beats watching the news.