James A. Baggett

One Gardener’s Beginnings

They say the gardening gene tends to skip generations. Makes sense to me. My father’s mother, my Grandmother Virginia, lived on the banks of the White River in Broad Ripple, Indiana, and maintained a modest collection of temperamental hybrid tea roses. She was particularly fond of ‘Peace’, a pale gold, cream, and ivory rose with a lightly ruffled carmine edge to its petals—and she grew a handful of bushes around a white-washed birdbath. ‘Peace’ was christened the day that Berlin fell in 1945. That same year, Dr. Ray Allen, secretary of the American Rose Society, arranged for each of the 49 delegates at the inaugural meeting of the United Nations in San Francisco to receive a bud vase with a single, long-stemmed ‘Peace’ rose. He attached the following note: “We hope the ‘Peace’ rose will influence men‚s thoughts for everlasting world peace.” This is the most popular and best-selling garden rose of all time; more than a hundred million have since been sold.

I distinctly remember being recruited into service by my grandmother in early spring to “powder” her roses, scrub clean the birdbath with a wire brush, and give it a fresh coat of white paint. A few years later, at the age of 10, my parents allowed my younger brother, Rick, and me to order whatever packet of seeds we wanted from the annual Burpee catalog that arrived in the mailbox of our new turn-of-the-century home in northern New Jersey. We poured over the garish pictures and finally settled on nasturtiums, for him, and forget-me-nots (Myosotis sylvatica), for me. I think I was attracted to the romantic common name and the petite robin’s-egg blue blossoms. Both grew like Topsy, rewarding us with armloads of pretty flowers in our suburban backyard.

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A few years later, I remember expressing an interest in a friend’s father’s collection of African violets (Saintpaulia). He showed me how to start new plants from leaf cuttings and sent me home with a couple of plants all my own. Before long, my enthusiasm for these rewarding houseplants—and my success for growing violets on my bedroom windowsill—quickly outgrew my friend’s father’s armchair botanical knowledge. So one day he jotted down the name and address of a woman who lived nearby and suggested I contact her to find out more of what I wanted to know. Without a second thought, I jumped on my orange Schwinn 10-speed, pedaled over to the address, and knocked on the door of gardener Mary Mahen. She didn’t seem at all surprised to find an earnest and awkward teenage boy with a decidedly green heart standing on her doorstep enquiring about African violets…and she invited me inside. She led me down into her basement and what I saw quite simply blew my adolescent mind: hundreds, perhaps thousands of African violets of every color and description blooming under rows of orderly grow lights in every imaginable shade: blue, purple, red-violet, orchid, lavender, red-pink, white, and bi-color or multi-colored. There were singles, doubles, semi-doubles, star-shaped, fringed, and ruffled flowers; velvety leaves were plain green, ruffled, fringed, scalloped, spooned, pointed, and even variegated. She even had charming miniature violets no more than a couple of inches tall. This was, after all, the president of the Missouri African Violet Society, and she eventually sent me on my way with my bicycle basket overflowing with fresh cuttings and brand new plants for my windowsill. Check out our feature on African violets in the issue of Country Gardens (Early Spring 2010) on sale at newsstands nationwide right now.

By the time I graduated from high school, the basement of my parents’ house was filled with every tropical flowering houseplant I could get my hands on. When I left for college years later, I diligently provided my mother with a list of specific instructions for the care of the collection of plants I was reluctantly leaving behind (thanks to a handful of nearby wholesale greenhouses that tolerated by presence, I grew everything—peperomias, aralias, gloxinias, gardenias, bromeliads, and cyclamen). It wasn’t until Thanksgiving break that I returned home, only to discover almost every single one of my plants dried up and dead from neglect. Why should I have been surprised? Like I said, gardening seems to be an every-other-generation kind of deal.

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4 Comments

4 Responses to “ One Gardener’s Beginnings ”

  1. Thank you for sharing this story. My grandmother must of had over 20 or so african violets in their sunporch ( facing west ). She passed away in 1970, and I still remember how beautiful they were. I loved your story. Thanks, Yvonne

  2. Hi James,
    I wanted to followup with you regarding a possible article this year featuring our Secret Garden here in Waynesville. I know we spoke last year and I forwarded pictures to you, but wanted to see if there are any possibilities this year.

    Debbie Goodwin
    The Secret Garden
    513/897-5505

  3. Hello Mr. Baggett,
    I am writing a quick note to you from my Aunt, Yvonne McGuire. She has just finished reading an article that you had in BHG on the topic of “gloves”. She was so touched by the article that now she wants to send you a letter! Would it be possible to get your mailing address? She has been a widow for the past 2 years and I think your thoughts on the gloves was a healing connection for her. This is a breakthrough! Thanks you so much,
    Vanessa Lorentzen
    PS…loved this article on african violets…

  4. Sure thing. Here is my address:
    James A. Baggett
    Country Gardens
    1716 Locust Street
    Des Moines, Iowa 50309