Monday, January 9, 2017

Mister Owita's Azalea Therapy

From time to time in my life, I have had friends who really disliked azaleas.  You would think to hear them talk that azaleas are urban blight.   I had not thought much about this dislike of azaleas until I read Carol Wall’s 2014 memoir Mister Owita’s Guide to Gardening; How I Learned the Unexpected Joy of a Green Thumb and an Open Heart.   Carol hired Giles Owita, a Kenyan native, to resurrect her neglected yard, the worst kept yard in her Roanoke neighborhood.  She detested azaleas, so her first direction to her new gardener was “Please remove azaleas.” 

In midwinter in Shelby County, it is hard to be enthusiastic about azaleas. Thin, curling leaves are blackish green, brown or rusty orange, and the largest azalea specimen in my front yard is full of holes from dieback brought on by neglect, drought, age, or a combination.  I have certainly thought, “Please remove this azalea!”  Yet in late winter, when Mister Owita turned his attention to the stragglers in Carol’s yard, he saw something else: “Those azaleas at your compound will be beautiful,” he promised her.  

This promise of beautiful pink blossoms did not soften her dislike
for a plant cursed with a brief blossoming time and an eternity of browning blossoms, petals falling away in advance of winter, and the ugly debris of decay.   Indeed, unlike most gardeners I know, Carol Wall did not like blooming things at all, since they reminded her of her sister’s coffin and generally reflected her unhappiness at the brevity of beauty and the fragility of life.  She was fearful  of a recurrence  of cancer and also anxious about the failing health of her parents.  What Mister Owita was up against in this particular gardening project was less a neglected yard than a troubled heart.
Carol was outraged when she discovered him at work pruning rather than removing the hated azaleas. 

He lovingly tended to the first azalea with fingers that carefully plucked away the crisp, dead leaves and dried debris that had fallen from the overhanging trees.  His feet were planted firmly on the sloping, moss-covered ground, and his eyes were warm with concern as he inspected the healthy green parts now becoming visible on the azaleas.  (52)

He applied his “chemicals,” fertilizer and an antifungal.  And rather than respond to her anger, he tended the azaleas and asked about her ailing parents.  

For Mister Owita, “Every yard must have its flowers.”  Carol hired him to fix her yard, but like all mentors, he saw his job as broader.  He had to help Carol appreciate them.  After the azaleas bloomed that spring, Carol reluctantly allowed them perhaps “one more year.”  Meanwhile, Mister Owita pruned the shapeless river birch to let in light and air for new beds.  He gave her green gardening gloves to use in preparing a bed for colorful annuals, but at her despair over such a riotous blend of colors, he promised shrubs instead.  They scraped, dug, and mixed soil.  They shared stories about her fears and anxieties and his worry over a daughter unable to emigrate. 

By the next March, as a late snow melted, Mister Owita’s plan for a cure of Carol’s malaise took a dramatic step forward.  Pure white daffodils pushed up between the boxwoods.  Tiny, white crocuses bloomed in profusion in beds.  White flowers “spilled all along the fence line” (114).  White snowdrops and a stand of white alyssum appeared, and soon there were white tulips and blossoms of sweet woodruff.  Her yard had become a sea of white flowers, just what her broken heart needed. 

The challenges of life were not over for Carol or her mentor, but finally she could allow him to introduce color into her life--red primroses, lemon-yellow lilies, purple-bearded irises.  Mister Owita turned out to be a miracle worker not only in tranforming Carol's yard, but also in helping her apply the patience, hope, and knowledge of gardening to her life.

Serious gardeners are not strangers to the therapies of our avocation.  Digging weeds and hauling manure are good strategies for allaying anxiety or anger.  Nor are we unaware of the benefits of the mentor who can minister to more than the neglected garden.  Carol Wall’s memoir is not always joyful, but like my garden catalogs and garden diary, it has helped me remember the beauty of azaleas even in the bleak midwinter.

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