I bought a shovel yesterday, the tempered-steel kind with a head like an ace of spades and a long wooden handle that will blister my palms. I bought it because I’ve decided to redo my garden, the dead echinacea flowers with their black spiny heads, the dark leaves of ivy tendrilling up the north wall of the house, the weedily persistent mimosa trees that take root and thicken to a girth of several inches within a year. In their place, I will plant tulips.
Ten years ago, I bought handfuls of bulbs at the local food coop. I’ve always loved tulips – their variegation and promise, the waxy texture of their petals, their sturdy emerald stems and the way they wink in the morning like gems in a gumball-machine ring. I read once that Audrey Hepburn, in order to avoid starvation during World War II, dug tulip bulbs right out of neighbors’ gardens and ate them. I pictured Hepburn herself as a tulip, right down to the upside-down shape of her perfect belled dress.
My expectations, however, fell far from reality. For example, I had no idea that any self-respecting tulip grower orders her garden according to color and height; that tulips come in varietals as diverse and legion as wine grapes; that you have to fork the earth before you plant them and net them safe from winter scavengers. I just dug holes and buried the bulbs, assuming they would come up sunny and cheering in the spring. But when March unclouded and the neighbors’ crocus and daffodil shot determined fingers toward the sky, my garden remained dull and faded, silver-brown soil broken only by an iceberg plant with sticky pale-grey leaves. The lawn was littered with unearthed bulbs like cadavers, lying on unconsecrated woodchips under the stunted Japanese maple.
Until I saw them uprooted I had no idea how much I’d hoped they would flower. We’d had a winter of dreary, insistent rain, and I was famished for color and sunlight. Years later I can still remember feeling bruised and fiercely protective pride over the five or six tulips that lived. The following winter, I didn’t replant them.
Now, as frost slides over the fallen leaves, I’m planning my garden. I’m learning how to make things grow, with each shovelful of pungent soil, each ache in my quad muscles and back. It might take time, but I’ll do it with my own two hands. I’ve learned, through loss, and mistakes, and time, to believe that a flower is more than a blossom in season. It’s the whole equation of potential and patience contained in an oniony bulb. It’s believing through winter, as much as rejoicing in spring; and knowing, since you can’t have one without the other, you might as well love them both. Come April, I hope for a sunburst of color along my chimney base. I want to grow tulips, and this time, I think I know how.
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