Columns: In the Garden: Mum’s the Word

Sometimes the lowliest flora sort of grow on you

Long before I married my husband, I began to espalier him. He was a country boy from the wilds of Western PA, and I had something more sophisticated in mind as the man of my dreams. Alas, no soigné guys seemed especially interested in me, so I figured the next best thing was to train what I had. The lessons would be legion, but we began with something simple: flowers. “Never,” I told Doug, “never, ever, buy me mums.”

I don’t like mums. It’s an irrational abhorrence, really, but it’s strong and deep. I don’t like their husky green smell; I don’t care for their muddy-water colors; I’m turned off by the monotonous simplicity of their blooms. I don’t care for the silly mounds people trim them into in gardens. I don’t care for them when they’re let-go and leggy, either. I just don’t like mums. And when there are so many beautiful flowers in the world, it seems criminal to me to pay for dumb mums.

I could see Doug’s lips move as he memorized this mantra: No mums. God bless him, he was willing to try. So when my birthday rolled around that first October, I was shocked speechless when he presented me with a huge bouquet of … mums. “I picked them out myself,” he said shyly, proudly. “And I know that none of them are mums, because I asked the girl in the shop.”

That mum-smell was making me a little nauseated, but I fanned it away. “Um … what exactly did you say to her?”

“I said, ‘None of these are mums, are they?’”

“And what did she say?”

“She looked at me for a moment. Then she laughed.” He was beginning to sense that something might be amiss. “Why?”

There I stood, teetering on the edge of our future together. The wise thing to do, the kind thing, would be to kiss him and hug him and thank him for the beautiful gesture. Trouble was, I don’t like mums. And if I didn’t straighten him out right then and there, chances were that every year, when my birthday rolled around — since it is in October — I’d wind up with another bunch of mums.

To hell with selflessness. “Hon,” I said firmly, “the girl laughed because she thought you were joking. All of these are mums.”

That was almost 30 years ago. He hasn’t brought me mums since.

He did, however, pick out a house with me when we moved to the suburbs. We first looked at it in December. We moved in in March. We were quite happy our first summer here. Then autumn came along, and so, all down the garden bed on the south side of our new house, did about 30 different kinds of mums.