Frost and Poppies

Frost and Poppies


About a year and a half ago I stole some poppy seeds. Not because I am wielding my horticultural knowledge for the drug industry, but because one of my favorite gardens that I spent time in as a little girl had been lost. The gates to the garden were locked, and all my memories of that magical wonderland seemed to hinge on me taking a part of that garden with me, something that would allow part of the garden to live on even if the rest of it plummeted into chaos. So I hopped the fence, found some poppy seed heads, and sure, I kinda stole them. 


(I realize I sound like some kind of illegal drug merchant thief, but I'm really just a sentimental gardener)

Family pecan orchard

Family pecan orchard

When I returned home from England a year later, I felt as if I had been on a merry-go-round that had suddenly come to an end. My time was up, it was time to get off, and I didn't quite know how. Time kept marching, but my heart was far away. My first week back I found those poppy seeds tucked away in a mason jar in my room.  All I wanted was to be gardening, but there aren't really any gardens in Alabama, at least, not the kind I wanted. It was suffocatingly hot and the soil is solid red clay and filled with rocks. After being attacked by fire ants I gave up. I missed the fluffy English soil that your trowel could cut through like butter, where we wore light sweaters in the summer and had tea breaks in old barns and little robins would keep you company as you worked down on your knees. In retaliation to the fire ants, I took the poppy seeds and sowed them in some wooden herb pots a friend had given me for my birthday years ago. It was the wrong time of year to sow poppies, and I didn't have the right kind of soil. But I did it anyway. It felt like the only thing I could do to bring a little bit of England to my back porch in Alabama.

Alabama Croton

Alabama Croton


Weeks passed, and I was now on the merry-go-round of job hunting, interview after interview. Except the job hunting merry-go-round feels more like one of those rides at a seedy state fair where you kinda suspect you are right on the edge of a fatal accident, except that fatal accident is your bank account and the approach of your 26th birthday with no prospect of health insurance. I kept watering the poppy seeds, even though I knew they would probably never germinate, but I was trying to trick myself that I was gardening in a meaningful way.

For England! For my childhood!! GOD SAVE THE QUEEN!!!


And then I honestly just forgot about those seeds in the midst of the *job-hunting-seedy-state-fair-ride*. I set them out on a bench and forgot to water them. Everytime I walked passed I felt a twinge of failure. 

Three months drifted by. The leaves were now in their full autumn glory. I bought some Sassafras trees and Alabama Croton shrubs, but they still sat outside in pots with their leaves ablaze, begging to be put in the ground. But I didn't put them in the ground, because it felt like too little of a garden offering. So, I did nothing instead. And there sat my wooden herb pot, still with no inkling of poppy seedlings, mocking me. 

Am I depressing you? It's what illegal drug farmer thieves do best.


But alas!!! We had an early frost in October, right after I had an interview at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens. That interview was the first time I felt a spark of hope, that maybe there was a place for me in the gardening world here at home. The next morning I walked out onto the back porch to find 4 pots of little sprouted poppy seedlings. It felt like a giant hug. Like a part of my childhood and England were both telling me that maybe Alabama had more to offer than fire ants and rocky, clay soil. 

Did you know that poppies need frost in order to germinate? I obviously didn't when I sowed them in August in my post fire ant rage. But, tail end frosts in the winter coupled with periods of warmth break the poppy's seed coat, then the spring rains flood it with the energy it needs to spring forth into life. Who would have thought an early October frost could make me want to hug wooden herb pots?


A month later I was walking into my first day on the job at Birmingham Botanical Gardens. My office is tucked back into the old herbarium on the second floor. Around me are people who know Alabama and its woods and creeks and wildflowers in breathtaking depth. It was a job I never dreamed I would want, but when presented with the opportunity I couldn't imagine being anywhere else.


2017 was filled with mostly utter delight. I worked in dream gardens, lived in quaint English villages and strapping big British cities. I made new friends that felt more like kindred spirits that I must have known in another life time. I celebrated a birthday by pruning shrubs and sowing seeds and eating scallops at the local pub. I caught trains to other little villages and left with a new found passion for sheep. I had friends and family visit from home, making adventures double the fun than doing them alone. I glamped in a yurt in the Isle of Skye, fly fished in a chilly river in Scotland, and drove on the wrong side of the rode through the Highlands with my sister. Then other sister flew in and surprised us and it was a big London reunion. I met a man who weaves classic tweed on a bicycle loom and left with a souvenir scarf. I ate ice cream on a seat made from a shovel and discussed the history of garden tools with a Dutch man at the Chelsea Flower show. I road a 3 hour boat to a tiny island off the western tip of England, where I gardened all day and swam in the sea at night. I made it home in time to stand by my sister and hold her bouquet as she married her dream guy. I flew back to England with my parents, where we put 1400 miles on our rental car and mom felt the need to ask everyone about their dog. Then... I moved back home to sweet home Alabama. I've been here for friend's birthday parties, holidays, coffee dates and football games. I was in America this year for Thanksgiving, celebrating it in my sisters's homes in the northeast. The week before I started work we got 6 inches of snow, which in Alabama means you sit all day on your back porch and just soak in the still white flakes. Then at Christmas we cozied up by the fire to drink coffee in the mornings and play board games at night. The life I was so accustomed to before, but now feels like a new gift after such a long absence. 

The most epic way to return home!

The most epic way to return home!


But there have also been some frosty, heart breakeventing events this year. A cousin who lost her husband after a life long battle with Cystic Fibrosis, and her 3 children losing their dad. Another cousin losing her dad within a week of discovering he had cancer. And a dear family friend, who was more like a second dad, fighting cancer, and in October, laying dahlias on his coffin as we said our goodbyes.

Those dahlias were grown by his sister. When those tubers were planted back in the spring, none of us imagined the flowers they yielded would, months later, be set on top of his grave. I remember standing at the cemetery that hot October morning under a dogwood tree and watching the rest of the friends and family lay their dahlia on the grave. The dogwood was turning the most beautiful red. Each leaf seemed to be on fire, hailing the passing of time, the rhythm of seasons. And that's just how life works, isn't it? The beautiful mixed with icy edges, and the frost mixed with touches of beauty. The grave, draped with dahlias.  And time, marching on, even when you feel like it should stop.


On Christmas Eve we held candles high sand sang these words... "A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices. For yonder breaks, a new and glorious morn."

The world can be a weary place sometimes, can't it? But in this weary world there are also moments that delight, and send a thrill that seems to thaw the frost. Sometimes we are on the merry-go-round, and sometimes it is time to get off. And while the merry-go-round is thrilling, there are moments where the tiny green faces of poppy seedlings can be just as delightful, poking their heads up after the frost, giving you that little nudge you need to keep moving on. 


So 2018, you might not be the British merry-go-round, but I have a feeling you will be just as delightful in your own special way. So, heres to a new year, filled with frost and poppies, and offices tucked into old herbariums.

And, let us rejoice, in this weary and delightful world.


PS-- I regret to inform you that the poppy seedlings have died. I wish I could have done a post this spring with inspiring pictures of poppies glimmering in the sunlight. But I forgot to move them inside and it dropped to 12 degrees here in ole Alabama, which was emotionally distressing for us southerners. But never fear, I have more stolen seeds (praise hands)

But you know what they say... If at first you don't set seed, SOW SOW AGAIN!!!!


(I am sorry I get carried away in all the poppy talk)