Rows and rows of plants lay on tables waist high, their leaves still speckled with the morning watering. The air is rich, sweet, musky, a breeze nudges you and the bees toward blooms several rows over—something you hadn’t noticed at first in the cacophony of flesh. For a moment it’s almost as if you can see those ultraviolet runway lights that guide in pollinators, you too are part of the process. You woke this morning for a singular purpose, and this exhaustion is a subtle joy.
Once or twice each week in 2008, the first full year of the garden, I ventured to nurseries. It was often the first thing I did in the morning, and I had an itinerary, an agenda, and two shopping lists—“need” and “surprise me, baby, oh please surprise me.”
10am Nursery #1
I hit the closest nursery, about ten minutes from home and in the middle of the city. From my previous twenty trips over the spring I know that here I’m likely to find the staples: salvia, coneflowers, coreopsis, monarda, and a good collection of groundcovers. Shrubs are also the cheapest here.
There’s an awning over the front doors, both which swing in to a large knickknack showroom with a low ceiling. A single air conditioning duct runs the length of the room above the two cash registers. The clerks at the front greet me, but in my mission I smile and wave them off, making a quick zip line approach to the back door and out past the covered area of annuals—each one advertising itself like a woman behind plexiglass in the Amsterdam red light district. I don’t need to waste money on a cheap, one time thrill, so I’m out the next door, to the tables laying in sunshine and a small lot of shrubs and trees.
I think I’m here for just a few things, so I quickly grab a one gallon plant that’s on my list, then another, pinching them between my fingers and dangling them against my right side. Just for kicks I peruse a few more lanes, perhaps noticing that the threadleaf coreopsis speaks to me today in a siren song I hadn’t anticipated, and I figure I know a place it will work well, to fill in a void that may only be metaphysical in my life.
Two more gallon pots and I’m pinching four of them, two in each hand. I feel like a lobster. Before I know it I’m hovering over a stand of groundcover sedum, and already picking them up in my mind. If I only had telekinesis. I can see them in my hands, in my car, in the garden. I’m lost. Hopelessly lost. And this is how it often happens. In the first year of planting—when I spend 6-8 hours outside in almost any weather save tornados—I am completely insane, full of blood lust, chlorophyll lust.
I soon have a cart full of plants, a dozen or more, and the young woman at the front asks me, as she pulls each plant from my cart and sets them into cardboard flats, if I found everything ok. I smirk, and swear she can see the saliva dripping from the corner of my mouth before I wipe it away.
11am Nursery #2
Another ten minutes east and in the north part of town is perhaps my favorite nursery. They’re the smallest one I frequent, and something about them oozes class, or some sense of horticultural sophistication. I’ve never been able to quite put my finger on it because they smell and look like pretty much any other nursery. Their shrubs and trees are a bit pricey. But there’s more. Most of their perennials come in small pint-sized containers, and are thus half the price of the larger nurseries. They have a few more unique plants, that’s true, but not as many natives as I’d like.
The greenhouse is the nearest building to the parking lot, and the sliding door works only if you want in, not if you want out. That’s either a great way to ensure customers or to break the fire code. Still, the venus flytrap method works.
Though it’s a small green house, it still takes me a while to find what I came for because, well, you know how it goes. But there they are, liatris, then the agastache. Out back in the open, through the requisite and annoying main room full of birdfeeders and tacky statuary, I pick up a viburnum and an itea. Then I put them down. Surely nursery #1 has these cheaper, but why didn’t I think about getting them there? Because I just realized I needed them. Look at them. They are perfect. Perfect.
Instead of hitting nursery #1 again, I can shoot down to its sister store on the south side of town, twenty minutes away, where their tree selection is the best. Might as well get some trees.
12 noon Nursery #3
The old man who works the tree and shrub lot out front greets me, asking if I need any help. No, I say confidently, admiring his straw hat and bypass pruners, one on each hip like six shooters. Of course, I have no idea where I’m going.
I walk up and down the rows and take thirty minutes to decide on one bald cypress of the ten I see. I’ve read up on how to choose, looking for a strong leader, no signs of stress in the bark, no infected branches. I like it here anyway, hidden by maples, oaks, birches, aspen, pine, crabapple, pear, willow…. Willow! Of course. Another twenty minutes and I’ve found a yellow-twigged willow, a cross between a black and weeping willow. How wonderful. I flag down the old man from across the lot. “Find something you want?” he yells from thirty feet away. “Yes, this tree here, and another over there.” He asks me if that’s all. Why’d he have to ask me that? I bet they have training sessions on how to ask questions, and on certain inflections and mannerisms which subliminally sucker in wide-eyed newbies like myself.
“Well,” I say, “I’d like to get a viburnum and maybe an itea while I’m here.” After red-tagging the trees, he leads me to the shrubs, where I select two before he asks, “Anything else for you today?” I head into the greenhouse and don’t come out for half an hour.
1:30pm Nursery #4
Which is, technically, on the way back home from nursery #3, so I might as well stop in and check it out. They have the best sales and clearance, common stuff of course. I’m beginning to get most of my species plants from online nurseries, but shopping online isn’t much of an experience. After rummaging through some things on sale under the large outdoor tent, I’m set for home. My trunk has two dozen plants that I’ll likely dig within two days, and a truck will deliver two trees later this afternoon. But it won’t keep me busy for long.
Sometimes, I come home feeling guilty. I didn’t really need to buy so many plants, or even any plants at all. In later years I’ll visit a nursery just for the experience as my willpower grows alongside my full garden, which both grow inversely to my checking account. Still, there’s always a plant or two. And when I return home I hide them behind a shrub, and sometimes plant them when I know my wife’s in the shower or away at work. It’s silly, I know she doesn’t really care. But I know I have a problem. I know I need help. I have to get in as many plants over the summer as I can so they’ll settle in over the winter. I’m always thinking ahead. Next week, I’ll hit the same nurseries again, but I’ll only get what’s on my list.