Sharon Denise Allison-Ottey
From My Heart To Yours

The Gardening of Our Lives

My father is a true gardener—a horticulturist as he will proudly inform you. Growing up, our yard was full of beautiful and exotic flowers, trees and utter beauty that my mother had absolutely nothing to do with. Although we lived in North Carolina and the role of the southern woman is often wrapped in the beauty of her home including her flower garden. My mother, a native Floridian, had no interest. She and my father made an untraditional pact early in their marriage that she would handle the cooking and inside details and that he would handle the outside. My father, a large manly man, tenderly nourished his latest floral triumph on a daily basis. He was adamant about planting the proper flower at just the right time, in the right amount of shade. With the precision of a surgeon he would place the seeds or buds in the ground and lovingly watch nature work its magic.

As the only daughter in the household this oddity blurred my thoughts on traditional male/female roles. I watched as my father bemoaned the squirrels that would chew on and often devour his plants. He would and still does rise early to assure that the plants are watered and that the soil temperature is optimal for their survival. My father, this statuesque man with thick hands that look like little cigars, has been known to talk to his plants and smile with pride as praise is heaped on his latest floral accomplishment.

Well, I certainly did not take on this love for nature that my father embodied. In fact, I literally kill any plant that is given to me or that I foolishly have purchased over the years. My friends and family have challenged this reality and have often given me plants that nobody can kill and I have proven them wrong repeatedly. This was tested when I was in college and was pledging my sorority; each pledge is given an Ivy plant that we were to care for during our pledge process. We were instructed to not allow our Ivy to die under ANY circumstances, as this was symbolic of us in this pledge process. Well, I understood my lack of a green thumb to put it nicely but to put it more accurately the existence of my black thumb. I secretly purchased and hid three Ivy plants that were identical to the one that I was given. I knew that if my becoming a member of this sorority depended on keeping a plant alive that I was surely dead in the water. True to my history, I did indeed kill off the plants one by one and I actually had to sneak away and purchase another. I did get into the sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha Inc., but my sisters will probably not know of my little “trick” until they read this piece.

Ironically, I should have been good at this gardening thing given my father’s gifts and talents and my love for the sciences. In college I was a Biology and Chemistry Major and was required to take Botany and other courses that should have helped me. However, I despised Botany but I loved my teacher who was from India and had an adorable wife that taught another course in Biology. I marveled at their kindness and I certainly did more than my share of brown-nosing as I knew that I needed all the help that I could get in the course. I tried REALLY hard to be interested in the Botany class, but I dreaded each and every day—I really dreaded the lab. How could we just walk around and look at leaves, trees and flowers. Who cared?  Anyway, I made it through but did not leave with an ounce more of appreciation for the art of gardening.

I do love the look of flowers, especially exotic ones. I love to receive flowers and have them around my office and home. I do love the look of flowers in my yard and find myself smiling at their beauty—it makes me happy. Well, decades later I decided to once again try to put my lack of skills to the test. However, this time I would purchase the flowers but ask for landscapers to plant them. These would be my choices, my creations and flowers, bushes and trees that I personally picked out for my yard. I was convinced that I could do this and I anticipated the masterpiece that I would create (with a little help).

For the first time in my life I went where I had NEVER gone before—to a garden center. I knew enough to not wear heels so I pulled out a pair of cute mules to further dress the part so I put on my jeans and a crisp white shirt with a decorative belt, topped off by a pair of my Chanel sunglasses. I pulled my hair back in a pony tail and put on a little mascara, powder and lip gloss. I glanced in the mirror and smiled—yes, I looked the part.  I opted to drive the SUV and confidently walked into the garden center’s office.

“Hello, where can I find flowers for outside?”  I asked of the young girl at the cash register. She looked at me as if I were an alien and quickly responded.


“Is there a salesperson available to show me my options?”  I naively asked as I looked around the small checkout area. The young girl smiled again and I could have sworn that she looked me up and down with a bit of disdain.

“Ma’am, all the flowers are outside and you just go pick what you want. This is not a department store.”  

“Thank you, but you can cut the extra commentary. Unless I’m wrong—I think that I have to pay for them right? If that’s the case I think that a little help is in order.” I had become irritated and was not going to take the young child disrespecting me—I was a customer. “How do I get the flowers back here or do I just steal them?” I snidely commented.

“Ma’am—there is a wagon outside, put the flowers on that and leave them outside, when you come back and I will come out and ring them up.”  She looked at me with attitude but I did catch her admiring my sunglasses. She was not going to ruin my day; I’d come to buy some flowers and I was gonna do just that?

“Thank you for all of your help.” I turned and quickly and walked outdoors as if I were being drawn to the beautiful colors under the outdoor tents that housed the floral masterpieces. I could handle this, after all—my father is a horticulturist and I have a couple of science degrees. I walked among the flowers and my eyes feasted on their colors and beauty, the options were limitless. I was overwhelmed by the variety and vivaciousness of the flowers. I even learned how to read the descriptions that let me know where the plants would best grow. I was calculating how many I needed for my yard and I imagined my floral triumph. However, I stopped dead in my tracks when I saw the price tags; surely a single flowering plant was not $8.99. Certainly, there had to be some mistake. I saw a man that looked like they knew a thing or two about the garden center about the pricing and he confirmed the prices to my horror. My limitless possibilities were suddenly limited to the flowers that were on sale—even that was going to set me back a lot of cash. I did what any southern belle would do in this situation; I called my daddy to find out what would work and how many plants I would need or rather, get away with buying!

There is one thing in life that my father loves second only to God and his wife—that is giving advice. He was thrilled that I called and immediately became very serious as he asked me exactly where I was going to plant them (I couldn’t bring myself to tell him that I was paying someone to plant them) and what I wanted to accomplish. He gave advice but he really kept asking me questions and finally said:  “Sharon, buy what you like—flowers have to speak to you, I can’t tell you what you like.”  

“Daddy, I like beautiful, different, colorful and easy; that’s it and that’s all. Oh and I like cheap.”  I was becoming frustrated again and saw a nice looking older gentleman walking toward me. “Daddy, I gotta go.”   Dad was fine on the phone but if I could sucker someone into helping me on site that would be all the better. I struck up a conversation with the gentleman and batted my eyes as much as I could, I should have done a little more with the makeup.  (Did I tell you that I am really a southern belle?) I hit pay dirt; the man was the owner of the garden center!  He loved it and he quickly helped me find the perfect flowers, I think he said pansies?  Anyway, he said that they would spread out as they grew and best of all were on clearance!  I pretended to begin to load the flowers onto the cart, ever so slowly understanding that any gentleman would quickly rescue me and he didn’t fail to help. He loaded the entire cart and walked me back into the office. I couldn’t wait to see the little witch of a salesperson, I did get personal service and who says a garden center cannot have a personal shopper service. I even suggested it to the owner who had a hearty laugh.  I paid for the flowers and I must say that even on sale it was a lot for flowers that would be dead in a few months. Nevertheless, I pulled out the plastic and thanked the owner profusely while smugly smiling at the salesperson. The owner asked HER to help me put the flowers in my truck and I knew that this was the garden center for me.  

I reached my house and the crew was already pulling weeds and cutting the grass. I pointed to the back of the truck and they begin to unload. I quickly told them where I wanted flowers and walked into the house exhausted by all of my gardening. A few hours later I sat outside and admired all of my hard work—the flowers looked great! I felt a sense of accomplishment and pride in my work.  Perhaps in the years to come, I would actually plant the flowers myself—ahhh, not!  

The first few days were glorious; I called my brother and told him of my accomplishments. I even watered the plants one day but luckily found a neighborhood kid that I wanted to be charitable to so I hired him to water the plants each day. I would grab my morning tea and admire my beautiful work; I was superwoman—who would have thought that I could plant a garden of flowers. I lovingly pulled the few blades of grass that were sticking up around my beautiful flowers. As the days went on, these few blades of grass seemed to become fertile, ugly weeds and what only took a few seconds to pull was now taking fifteen to twenty minutes. Where did the weeds come from and why were they growing faster than my flowers. I became so irritated that I dreaded walking outside because I knew that I would need to pull the weeds and grass. It seemed like I no longer saw my beautiful hand picked flowers, I only saw the blades of grass and the growing, sprawling weeds. I smiled inwardly as I listened to my inner voice, God and my wry sense of humor—I laughed aloud as I heard all of the these factors giving me yet another life lesson. I was gardening—ME, albeit I was in heels and a skirt pulling the weeds, I was gardening.

Indeed, I was gardening in a way and it was symbolic of the gardening of my life. My focus on the weeds and stray grass blinded me to the beauty of the flowers that I handpicked and were still colorful and growing. The flowers were still beautiful but my focus on the negative weeds and grasses that were growing with them blinded me to their beauty. As is life, there are always periods in our lives wherein we are so blinded by our challenges and obstacles that we fail to see the beauty of our lives. Yes, your children may be acting crazy but what about the beauty of their smile? You may have breast cancer that has spread to your bones but even in the midst of this can you appreciate your best friend who takes you to all of your treatments?  The marriage that you thought was forever may have crashed and burned with your heart devastated but what about the fact that you took the hit but still are standing, you didn’t lose your mind. There are so many examples of beauty in the midst of our madness. I don’t pretend to follow my own advice all of the time nor do I try to say put on a happy face no matter what. I know that it is hard, it is hard for me but this is just a reminder that no matter what you face, there are flowers that you can think of and smile. These flowers are divinely planted to make us stop, dry our tears, bandage our wounds and take a deep breath of beauty and the scent of hope. I dare you to continue to garden your life. There are weeds that you must pull out and you must nurture the flower of your life. However, don’t allow yourself to only look at the weeds but rather appreciate and cultivate the beautiful flowers that you are growing.

The Gardening of Our Lives
Sharon Denise Allison-Ottey, MD