Updated: Mar 7
For years my husband and I owned a small garden center in a rural town in New Hampshire, population 4,000. We always opened the day after Easter. Often there would still be snow — there could actually be another foot coming even in April. Maples weren’t breaking bud yet, crocuses were barely conscious, but semi trucks would start arriving at our store full of flowering azaleas from North Carolina and roses from Pennsylvania, hardy ones that could survive Zone 4 temperatures.
Dressed in down jackets or foul weather gear, my husband and I unloaded hundreds and hundreds of pots. One of us climbed into the back of the truck with the driver and the other set piles of pallets in the opening with our old yellow forklift. Inside the container, the plants were stacked in groups: azaleas, rhododendrons, forsythia, viburnums, hardy magnolias, lilacs, weeping cherries and crabapples. Every shade of tender green was beginning to unfurl. The pots went onto the pallets, the forklift moved the pallets to the parking lot.
When the plants were all set on the pavement, they looked like groups of new immigrants in a hostile land unaware of all the difficulties New Hampshire with its rocky soil and rockier weather had in store for them. But you will be loved, I silently promised them, and you’re so needed.
Then I’d cross the parking area to the general store for hot coffees while Geoff directed the semi back onto Route 13. Anyone I’d meet might say, “When I see you, I know spring is here.” I heard that many times, and it made me feel great. In northern New England, spring is only second to winning the lottery for the best thing that can happen to a person. To be called spring's herald felt like being called an angel.
Most years before we’d start our all-day-every-day seasonal work schedule, we’d take a Mexican vacation. It was there I had an aha moment early one morning on a bus that stopped next to a part adobe, part wood-scrap shack. I was admiring the aluminum cans nailed to the walls brimming with red and pink geraniums when out from the door came a beautiful young woman with perfect make-up; combed, glossy hair; and an oh-so-white blouse embroidered with every color flower. She was a piece of art, as were the walls of her house, and money didn’t have much to do with it. I thought about how she put many colors on each day when she woke up and how when she came home she had red geraniums with green leaves in silver pots against brown stucco to greet her. No matter what happened in the hours she was gone, she had those riches to keep her spirits up. Color is a free, universal antidepressant, I realized, and poor people of every culture use it prolifically.
At the garden center a popular question of new gardeners was always, why would anyone plant annuals that die in the winter when perennials come up every year? Because annuals bloom all summer, and perennials only bloom for a few weeks. Blank stare. Often people new to New Hampshire had no idea how long a winter could be. They didn't understand that an entire summer of color might be the cheapest and best inoculation against formidable dark and drear.
Back in those days, we sold a tray of any eight six-packs of annuals for $20.00. The possible combinations were endless and I was always awed by what people would put together. Orange marigolds, yellow marigolds, purple and white striped petunias, tall red salvia, short blue ageratum, pink impatiens. Wow!
In 1998, we went to San Miguel de Allende for our Mexican vacation. “I’m going over to sign us up for Spanish classes,” Geoff announced the first morning. I suddenly felt panicked at the prospect, and a slightly desperate voice from within said, “I’d really rather learn to paint.”
Spanish and art classes were both offered in a large old ex-convent near our hotel, and the art teacher was happy to have me join his atelier. I started immediately. But when he set me up with only brown paint so I could practice painting with dark and light values, I was so disappointed I fetched Geoff between his language classes to come back and explain I wanted (needed) to use colors.
I wish I could remember that teacher’s name. He changed my life. He took me directly to an art supply store and had me pick out a blue, a red, yellow ochre and white. I learned to paint. It wasn’t hard. And since then I can be happy anywhere, any time of year. For me, painting is flowers blooming non-stop. It’s my perpetual winning ticket.
All the months the garden center was open, I never had a desire to paint because I worked with color all day long. But in the winter I painted every day I could.
We sold that business in 2007. Since then I've painted year round. Instead of bringing flowers to people in the spring, I love sharing painting techniques and supplies with anyone who asks. Painting is an easy, fun way to experience the healing effects of color.