TEXT BY ANNA BOLTON
PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVE DOSTIE
A granddaughter’s reflection: Nancy Burleson taught her family how to tell a weed from a perennial — and find peace in dirt.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve helped my mother and grandmother in their gardens. Every spring, Mom and I would pile plants into our old Volvo station wagon — annuals for the flower boxes on the porch and a few choice perennials to fill in the beds in front of our home, in Scarborough. As a kid, my favorite thing was to peek in the rearview mirror and see a garden in the wayback, bee balms and coneflowers waving over the tops of the back seats. As I grew older, I was allowed more responsibility. One year, I got to choose the color scheme for the flower boxes. A few years later, I planted my own herb garden in the backyard. Now, as a young adult, I have as much say about our landscaping as anyone in the family, other than my 85-year-old grandmother, Nancy Burleson. She has significant pull at our house and the final word at her own home, in Bristol.
Bursting with color and fragrance throughout the growing season, Nana’s gardens could inspire almost anyone to work the soil. She’s been tending them since she was 11, when her mother tasked her with weeding. Later, as a young mother herself, she put my mom and my uncle to work removing unwanted plants from the flower beds. Past summers have found me weeding alongside the three of them for hours in the sun. Even though Nana sometimes complains (like the time my uncle planted a row of hostas without asking permission), I know she appreciates our interest and help.
Nana’s house is entirely surrounded by beds, and several more gardens are scattered throughout the yard. Shasta daisies and phlox grow in the sun, Solomon’s seal and moss pathways in the shade, and countless other varieties in the places in between. My favorite garden is the one by her front door, where creeping thyme blankets the ground, and coreopses, irises, and lavenders mix by the rock wall.
In summer, Nana spends a few hours nearly every day nurturing her plants and adding new ones. “The business of gardening, Annie,” she told me recently, “it’s very hard work, physical work. But it’s therapeutic. When you come in, you’re a better person than when you came out. It is so satisfying. It’s hopeful. It’s a wonderful thing for your being.”
She’s right. Getting dirt under my fingernails, breathing fresh air, and cultivating the soil to yield something beautiful is a fundamentally raw, down-to-earth experience. When I went to college in New York City, I kept a collection of succulents and cacti so I could feel connected to our family tradition even while living in a concrete jungle.
Now, I’m back in Maine, and whenever I visit Nana, I walk around her gardens to see what’s new and to take joy in the familiar, whether it’s lilacs emerging in May, bumblebees swarming around the bee balm in July, or, after looking nearly dead all season, the rose of Sharon bursting into bloom in August. And I’m grateful for this place, where Nana taught me how caring for plants can bring peace and tranquility into my world.