People, Patience and Purple Petunias

Last year as spring debuted and I could no longer keep my hands out of the warm dirt, I made the familiar trek to the local Lowe’s garden center. The front of our house faces south and is largely unshielded from the now only warm but soon to be blistering sun, and is also largely unshielded from Millie the sometimes delightful and sometimes flowerbed-attacking mutt. In the interest of transparency, I should accept some of the blame as one who is generally lacking a green thumb, and rather impatient with delicate flora which demand special attention. So, all prospective Mendenhall flowerbed occupants must be lovers of the sun, fairly ambivalent about water, and generally hardy. FullSizeRenderThe perennial favorite, though actually an annual flower, has always been the vinca, also known as the periwinkle, because it is exactly as described above. But last year my eagerness preceded the vincas’ arrival in the garden center, and though they would be added later to the front bed, that day I came home with trays filled with colorful petunias, guaranteed to rival the vincas in performance.

The petunias were planted with care, just the right depth and distance apart, and fertilized and watered and Millie-proofed as much as possible. I don’t know what it was, because I saw plots of petunias bursting with blooms and color all over town, but they didn’t thrive in our bed. They didn’t exactly wither and die, but they were puny. Puny petunias. They certainly did not perform like the little marker that was wedged among the six-pack declared they would. They were actually a disappointment. And I vowed not to waste my time on their sort again.

Old Man Winter was mostly a stranger around these parts this year, and before my fingers could even start itching to poke around in some potting soil, sprigs of green started pushing through the barely warm soil in the front bed. I couldn’t identify the leaves immediately, and with the quantity of weeds in our yard this year, assumed they had infiltrated the bed as well. But in a hopeful moment (or a lazy one, perhaps) I decided to wait and watch.

I didn’t have to wait long before the first little bud appeared, and then what seemed like overnight the bed burst into blooms in various shades of purple. And they just kept growing and blooming and have filled the bed with their unexpected beauty: an explosion of color even more impressive than the six-pack’s promised potential. There was no planning or preparation, no cultivating or cajoling. The purple petunias just popped up on their own -- and they are not puny.

Even with the best intentions: having relocated into the neighborhood where I am engaging in community development, being committed to the idea of listening well to my neighbors and understanding the value of the gifts and talents of my neighbors, I have still treated people like petunias. I have thought if I just got my hands dirty enough, helped them find the right spot, followed the right formula, and provided the right resources, things would be all right. And when they didn’t bloom and grow and perform when and how I had hoped, I was disappointed, and sometimes even wondered if I was wasting my time.

How sad it would have been if I had plucked those suspicious sprigs this spring, cleaned out the bed and planted what I wanted, and missed the surprise of this beautiful sea of purple. And people are more important – and surprising – than petunias.