Life With Plants: Betina Simmons Blaine 

Betina Simmons Blaine is the proprietor of Marzipan Seattle, specializing in kokedama and plant workshops. She’s a passionate gardener, and has spent many hours teaching about sustainable gardening and working with children in school gardens. Not only is Betina an avid flower, vegetable and indoor gardener, she’s a beautiful writer. I’m really honoured to be sharing her story this month. It’s an intimate, honest, and rich tale of life, with plants.

“I grew up in a house filled with orchids. My Japanese stepfather, a writer, spent countless hours nurturing them. Our house was so verdant that my parents added a sunroom to accommodate the overflowing plants. I have traveled often to Denmark where my mother is from. Scandinavia in winter is a place where bringing light and life into the home is imperative, hence the inclusion of houseplants into the concept of hygge (‘cosiness’). The same can be said of rainy Seattle, where I reside. My maternal grandmother wrote in her journal about gardening in Northern Idaho and Wyoming to feed her 10 children. Her grandfather was a professional gardener in Scotland.

You could say I came by my green thumb naturally, although it took many tumultuous years for me to know or care.

When I was 8, my parents shipped me to Denmark to live with family while they divorced. Of course I was homesick. Yet I have fond memories of that confusing time too, including accompanying my grandparents to their allotment garden, and picking blackcurrants for jam in my aunt’s garden. The taste of the tiny red and yellow plums from the neighbour’s yard is something I still search for. I realise that the gardens and plants gave me comfort even then.

After my freshman year in college, my younger brother and only sibling was killed in a car accident. I struggled through the disintegration of our family, through my own anguish and the agony of my parents. I remain confounded by the refusal of our culture to talk about death, and the unspoken undercurrent that tragedy is somehow contagious. I attempted to cope with the pressure to move on, as though this profound loss was a minor hurdle. I ran alone late at night to try to find calm to no avail although I succeeded in exhausting myself.

Around this time, I discovered the conservatory next to the cemetery. I found solace there. Maybe it was the quality of the light, or the fragrant air – but I’m quite sure I felt the plants absorb my pain.

Later I fell in love with an artist who worked as a gardener. He was damaged in his own way and I was smitten. I followed him into the garden where he grew oriental poppies and daisies. I grew my own moonlight-scented garden of tuberose, stock and nicotiana. For the first time in many years, I felt a sense of peace and it was addictive. I took over a yard that had belonged to an elderly Italian woman – filled with figs, Italian prune plums and pie cherries. We brought in broken concrete to build raised beds and I grew the most magnificent and abundant vegetable garden.

The relationship barely survived a trip to Mexico and Guatemala in a VW van, but I was mesmerised to find straw flowers and calendula still alive and blooming months later at Christmas. My relationship was not healthy, but my garden was and I couldn’t leave it. I gardened through, trying to find out what colour my parachute was. I gardened my way to a summer of farming; selling corn, greens and carrots out of a straw basket at the Pike Place Market. I made friends by bringing the most beautiful lunches of baby vegetables to work when I realised that my parachute needed to include a liveable wage and I reluctantly returned to a corporate job.

In the end, naturally and predictably, the artist and I broke each other’s hearts. I said goodbye to my beloved garden and found homes for its resident litter of kittens. When I found another place to live, the first thing I did was plant a Katsura tree (Cercidiphyllum sp.), even though I was renting. It made me feel sheltered and safe.

When I married a wonderful soul who supports my horticultural pursuits, my favorite gifts were two fig trees, which astound me with their ability to produce beautiful fruit so far from their native home. When we bought a house, I set to work immediately amending the soil, my soil. I taught my babies to enjoy the sensual pleasures of plants; the berries, the worms and bugs; the ‘sweet dream wands’ aka lavender. I taught city kids at their school gardens to grow, eat and like kale. My favorite kid quote from that time was, “It tastes like a leaf but I like it!” I feel compelled to teach others about the elemental sustenance, self-reliance and comfort to be found in growing things.

Several years ago my beautiful, young and fiercely independent mother suffered a catastrophic stroke, leaving her severely impaired, incapacitated and unable to speak. She was not expecting it, and she was not prepared. Being the only surviving child, it all fell to me. Watching her suffer in her awareness of her trapped, dependent and altered state is a living nightmare. Trying to sort out her inscrutable and complicated affairs has been depressing and stressful. Advocating for her through our broken legal, medical and social systems has been maddening. But through my anguish and rage, I planted a cut flower garden for her, giving us both a small measure of happiness. Flowers are one of the only things she still enjoys, and some of the only words she has found are, “They are beautiful.”

When my boys ask me about religion, about what I believe, I tell them I feel a higher power when I’m with them and when I’m in nature. I know there are scientific explanations for most things, but for me there is more.

I marvel that I could never know all there is to know about growing plants. I find endless fascination in the sacred geometry, repeated everywhere in our lives. Gardening teaches us that the cycle of life is irrefutable. The lessons to learn are many: hopefulness and letting go, the power of nurturing, the importance of self-reliance. Gardening has been a lifeline that has carried me through, has provided me with peace and grounding, has given me purpose and a way to connect. I feel part of my calling in this life is to share what I know so that others might also be empowered to nourish their bodies and souls, to find solace, strength and acceptance, and to see the connections between all living things.’

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