In search of “bleeding heart”

Family bonding through gardening

On my mother’s annual spring trips to Prague, one of our first stops is a garden center. We stroll the aisles looking for seasonal plants. My mother identifies the plants she knows and tells me their English names. I love the hands-on learning experience. The gardeners smile at our blending of Czech and English as we make our selections. As is often the case when my mother comes to visit, I discover that acquaintances with whom I usually speak Czech are, in fact, well-versed in English, too. 

My mother and her sisters inherited their passion for flowers and outdoor beauty from their father. My grandfather planted his tulip beds twenty years ago and this spring they came up as full and hearty as ever. My mother describes them to me over a coffee in the garden center. I hold a picture in my mind. I wish I knew his secret.

Sixteen years ago when my grandfather passed away unexpectedly during a surgery, my grandmother and her daughters were left with broken hearts and a full garden that needed new hands to tend it. Over the years, my grandfather’s magnificent tulips have become a source of family pride and a testament to my grandfather’s enduring “green thumb.”

When my mom arrives in Prague and takes a look at my straggly tulip bed, she offers to help dig up the old bulbs and to treat me to new bulbs for next year. Having tried, somewhat unsuccessfully, for the past five years to grow tulip bulbs that last beyond a season, I am envious of the confidence with which she gives her advice.

Anyone with knack for gardening earns my admiration. When I try to explain what it means to have a “green thumb” to my Czech husband Radek, he understands but can’t find the equivalent expression in Czech. Like me, he has learned everything that he knows about gardening in recent years. We are gardeners by default. We just happened to buy a house with a yard in the suburbs. Now, six years after having moved out of the city, we are beginning to see the fruits of our outdoor labor. The way our yard space is developing has begun to give me as much, if not more, pleasure than decorating the interior of the house did years ago. Watching the children pick fresh berries, snap sugar peas and run circles through the soft, green grass brings me a certain satisfaction that I wouldn’t have expected.

Our first task six Mays ago was to seed the grass. A team of gardeners, one or two adult men and several shirtless teenage boys who all seemed to be related, seeded the grass in a two-day whirlwind. Radek bought sprinklers and extension hoses, which he set-up around the garden. He left for work after giving me explicit instructions about the order and the time I was supposed to water each section. For the parts that the sprinklers couldn’t reach, I needed to stand with the hose and water it myself. The kids and I made a game of it. Our water bill was high, but by the end of the summer, we had grass. That summer the kids thought that growing grass was more fun than going to the swimming pool.

From the beginning, Radek had an eye for the overall landscaping of the garden. He selected the trees and decided how we’d place them in the yard. He designed different rock and mulch beds around the garden. He even planted a cheery tree himself, as according to Czech tradition, every man is supposed to build a house, have a child and plant a tree. However, he left the fun part – selecting smaller bushes and plants to fill the beds, finding terrace pots and woven baskets and rotating the seasonal plants — up to me. Armed with a colorful gardening catalog, I talked to friends who gardened, checked out the gardens around our neighborhood and waited for my mother’s annual spring visit. Each year, often with my mother’s advice, we bought (or acquired) a few more plants.

When my friend decided that the bonsai lilac plant on her terrace needed space to grow free, I welcomed the new arrival. Another American friend gave me a second lilac bush for my birthday and the two stand by stand, reminding me of the lasting gift of friendship. At the end of WWII, when the Allied troops came to Prague, they saw the gorgeous purple blossoms of the lilac trees. Our lilac bushes remind me of Europe, while the forsythia tree beside it reminds me of summertime play in a forsythia bush in my parent’s backyard. My own children have discovered the bush in recent years, and making a fort inside of it is on Anna Lee’s “to-do” list again this summer.

When the shady spot behind the garage didn’t suit the flowery bush we’d selected, we replanted it to a sunny spot at the back corner of the garden. We put hydrangeas in the open space. I knew the flowers from my parents’ garden, and I loved their various shades of white, dusty rose, pink and even blue. My mom suggested we fertilize the hydrangeas with coffee grounds to see if we could get their colors to change. Anna Lee dutifully dumped coffee grounds around their base for a season. When the blossoms finally came, we were all taken away by their lavish beauty. On my mother’s next visit, she suggested that I cut a few clippings for indoors and let some dry so that I could display them longer.

When visiting, my mom ventures out on short walks through the neighborhood and reports back to me. Her favorite garden is on a gravel path down the hill from us with a little weekend cottage tucked on the right side. The garden isn’t fancy, nor is it big. It is however, meticulously well-kept by a smiling white-haired couple. They have a border of tulips and peonies that would please my grandfather, and they rotate their smaller beds with seasonal plants in complementary colors. Their vegetable bed has strawberries and tomatoes and their apple trees hang over the gravel path, tempting passersby to pluck one. It was in their garden that my mother saw the plant she determined to buy for me this spring. It is colloquially called “bleeding heart,” and when not in bloom, it’s a rather normal green bush. Its blooms are delicate and eye-catching and my mother thought she knew just the right spot for it (to the right of the rhododendron bush).

Despite several trips to different garden centers, both big and small, my mom’s visit ended before we found our bleeding heart. A few days before she flew out, she settled for buying me geraniums instead. At her request, we selected six red geraniums of the traditional variety. They looked hearty and full-blossomed, although it was too early for them to be in bloom. We carefully chose six flowers in a line and doubled checked that their unopened buds were reddish. Uniformity would look the best, she assured me. With Samuel’s help we potted them before she left.

At the end of her trip, she suggested that I go down to the cottage to see if I could catch the owners outside and ask them where they’d gotten their bleeding heart. Maybe they’d give you a clipping, she ventured. She asked me for a favor, too. Could I please take a picture of the cottage with its garden for her? One picture for each season. She’d frame it and have a Czech garden all year-round hanging in Virginia. I promised to try, and I agreed to keep looking for the bleeding heart.

Although it’s nearly time for us to start packing for our summer trip to the US, I still haven’t found the bleeding heart. Nor have I been able to figure out what the plant is called in Czech. But it’s on my list. When the geraniums bloomed a week or two ago, I took a picture to send to my mom. They are exquisite, lush and multi-blossomed. There is only one problem. They’re all, except for one, pink. When I told Mom, she laughed. You never know what you’re going to get when you start a garden, she said. Usually, the combination is better than what you had originally planned. I have to agree.    

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