Ol’ man Simon, planted a diamond.
Grew hisself a garden the likes of none.
Sprouts all growin’, comin’ up glowin’,
Fruit of jewels all shinin’ in the sun.
-Shel Silverstein, Where the Sidewalk Ends
My garden is my most beautiful masterpiece.
I kill all the plants. I buy orchids three or four times a year, water them weekly like clockwork, and everything goes just fine until, without warning, like a middle school breakup, they suddenly die. Last summer, when I was in my first trimester of pregnancy – tired, cranky, and hungry for anything that wasn’t in the house – I had a vegetable garden. Miraculously, things grew, but the neighbor’s cat defecated in it with surprising regularity, and the squirrels and birds devoured the rest before I could harvest it. I have four cacti in the sunroom that are all in various stages of early death. It doesn’t matter what I do – water more, water less; move them around to get more sunlight, or more shade; simply forget about them for months at a time – they continue their slow decline. The only plant I ever succeeded in keeping alive beyond infancy was a potted basil, which sat in the kitchen in our old house in Burke and grew like a fairy-tale beanstalk, threatening to take over our house. Eventually I had to execute it.
I have great admiration for people with green thumbs. When I was a teenager, my best friend lived in a house surrounded by an enchanted flower garden, complete with a reflection pool and a moon flower that bloomed only once a year, for a single night. Gardens transform ordinary houses and yards into magical places. One of my fantasies about motherhood includes tending a beautiful garden for Squeakers to admire and plan in, but so far all I’ve got is a monster of a knockout rosebush that could probably survive a nuclear apocalypse. Planted by previous owners beside the driveway, I begrudgingly cut it back once or twice a year to keep it from attacking innocent passersby.
Last week, Squeakers and I visited The Great Big Greenhouse. When we entered the sales area, we traded dry morning heat outdoors for a hot wet blanket in the greenhouse. Squeakers immediately reddened, and I imagined sweat drenching the plush infant insert in his carrier as he dreamed, probably of tropical islands. When I took out my camera, the lens fogged. Still, the store inspired: brightly glazed ceramic pots, flags with flowers and butterflies, bird baths, gargoyles, garden gnomes, and seed packets promising perfect blooms were enough to make me want to make a dozen impulse purchases and go directly home to recreate Monet’s garden. Luckily for my bank account and my husband’s sanity, I had a meeting to get to.
The Great Big Greenhouse is located in Huguenot Village Shopping Center. It opened in 1977, and remained privately owned until it was sold to Meadows Farms Nurseries, a DC metro-area based company, in 2010. When Squeakers and I visited last week, I talked with Bill Livelsberger, the store manager, who has worked for Meadows Farms for 25 years.
Tall and suntanned with soil-darkened fingernails, Livelsberger is a man of few words, but everything he says is precise. He grew up in Bethesda, Maryland, and describes the “giant megalopolis” as a “small town” back then. He studied Business Management at the University of Maryland, but decided to combine his degree with his love of the outdoors after graduation. Livelsberger’s first job with Meadows Farms was assistant manager at a Maryland store. “My parents were big gardeners. I grew up with plants, so it was not a gigantic leap when I started working for Meadows Farms.” In addition to selling plants and gardening supplies, The Great Big Greenhouse offers landscaping advice for customers who bring in pictures and diagrams of their yards. They also host a weekly farmer’s market, with 25 vendors with products ranging from beets and ice cream, to food, vegetable, crafts, and honey vendors.
Before studying business and working for garden centers, Livelsberger said he originally imagined himself becoming a veterinarian, until “…organic chemistry got ahold of me.” Still an animal lover, Livelsberger has two dogs, three cats, and chickens at home, along with a sizeable garden. “Growing plants is a stress-reliever,” he said. “If you grow your own vegetables, you can’t get anything fresher.” Livelsberger grows tomatoes, peppers, squash, strawberries, beets, carrots, radishes, and kale in his 30-by-60 foot vegetable garden. “I give a lot away, but I rarely buy vegetables in the summertime,” he said. He has also tried his hand at beekeeping, and currently keeps four beehives. “It’s hard. I have failed a couple of times, and I’m just picking it up again this year,” he said, explaining that a variety of pests threaten the bees, as well as colony collapse disorder. “No one really knows what causes colony collapse, but there’s about a 30 percent mortality rate each season.”
When he’s not gardening or caring for his animals, Livelsberger enjoys small game hunting, and he fishes on the Rappahannock near his home in Fredericksburg. Lately, he has begun container gardening, and has 18 containers on his deck this summer. “It’s a lot of fun, and it’s becoming more and more popular.” When he retires, Livelsberger hopes to travel and spend time with future grandchildren. “I want to go to Alaska, and Europe, especially Greece and Italy. I’d like to see the pyramids, the Great Wall of China. Pretty much everywhere,” he said.
Livelsberger recommends that children plant and care for a garden. “My own kids loved working outside, being in the sun and watching things grow, and seeing the results of their labor,” he said. “Took a little while to get them into it, but now that they’re a little older, they enjoy it.” Livelsberger said his favorite part of his job today is working outside, and working with young people. When I asked him what advice he had for people who kill all the plants, he said, “Be careful with the watering, and don’t give up.”
When Squeakers and I went outside so I could snap a few pictures, I noticed him turning his head to stare at something on a table leg next to his carrier. I followed his gaze and saw a tiny, bright green frog. It looked as though it had hopped out of the pages of National Geographic. An employee noticed the frog too, and remarked that it must have caught a ride from Florida in the delivery truck. I watched Squeakers watching the frog with his big blue eyes, and wondered what he was thinking, and what it must be like to see something like a frog for the very first time. I love catching him in the midst of a new discovery, watching him complete his observation, and tuck the new thing away into the ever expanding corners of his mind. Someday soon, I’ll be able to give him his own plastic shovel and set him free to dig and explore, and I’ll watch him unearth little pieces of this great big world.