Today is Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Simple flowers in a simple vase

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They sway like a mosaic, moving parade in a barren field in Mt. Juliet. Some are hearty and strong, while others are delicate and tender. Maybe a thousand of these colorful flower jewels brighten the landscape and flourish this sticky season.

Zinnias. It's an old-fashioned flower that's stood the test of time and brings back memories of hot summer days out in momma's backyard garden. There are two such gardens in Lebanon in back of the Extension Service office. It's such an unlikely place to find two crowded jungles of colorful zinnias, but sisters Jan Whitaker and Carol Benson know it's little piece of heaven that extends way beyond its borders.

Jan says she the "older and shorter one." By six years and several inches. They both love to garden. Each Wednesday, the two can be found in the flourishing zinnia gardens, along with some other loyal friends. They cut the colorful zinnias, then go to the back of Jan's SUV, spread out a coverlet, drag out boxes and boxes of various vases and gallons of water, and start to arrange. What happens after that is what's so magical about their garden.

"Our mother and both our grandmothers were gardeners. We inherited our interest," Carol says. "But our daughters certainly didn't!"

However, granddaughter Olivia, 6, is "being trained" as we speak, they both quipped. Little Olivia is often in the garden, exclaiming how beautiful it is.

The sisters are Master Gardeners (they graduated the exhaustive course in 2009) and now belong to the Wilson County Master Gardener's club. When Jan lived in Collierville, a friend, Carl Wayne Hardeman, decided the medians in the local neighborhoods were fertile wasted space. So he decided to plant zinnias.

"At the same time a lady there opened up a daycare for Alzheimer patients," Jan says. "Her dad had Alzheimer's and she wanted a good place for him to be while she worked."

Carl's zinnias made their way to the daycare and the Alzheimer's patients bloomed when they were given the opportunity to arrange the flowers in donated vases.

"Anything with bright colors and is familiar makes those suffering from Alzheimer's at peace," Carol says. "The old-fashioned zinnia calmed them."

When Carol and Jan made their way to Lebanon in 2013 and 2014, they remembered Collierville and decided it would be a great idea to do something similar in Lebanon. They took their "Zinnia Project" to their Master Gardener Club, and "all the members fell in love with the idea."

They talked about their plans to deliver vases of flowers to SCAN (Senior Citizens Awareness Network) and two local assisted living places, among others.

Their seed of an idea took root when they planted actual seeds, thousands of them, donated by Master Gardeners and others. The two patches of land were also gifted to the project.

"We had all kinds of packets of zinnias," says Jan. "There were big bold ones and fragile ones and a plethora of colors."

They threw the seeds in a big cauldron and mixed them up. Jan's husband, Whit, helped them "organize" the garden and about four others helped the sisters plant. Others first tilled the dirt. The call went out for vases and soon "boxes and boxes" of all types of vases came pouring in.

Today, after months of picking, the zinnias still grow strong. Purple, yellow, red, orange, green and white. It's been quite easy to maintain, and the gardens don't need a ton of water to thrive.

"We picked zinnias because they are an old-timey-type flower," Carol says. "Just like flowers are supposed to be; they are sturdy and vibrant and happy. They don't have to be coddled."

These "happy" flowers have brightened the lives of countless seniors in Wilson County this first summer of the project.

"It's such a sweet project," SCAN Director Debbie Pare says. "Each week vases of flowers are delivered to our office and then the volunteers deliver them to our clients. They love them. Some have said they've never been given a flower before. They are every color and combination you can imagine."

She says her seniors are thrilled and remember having gardens at one time in their lives.

"I think it's amazing how the Master Gardeners have reached out to us with this new and exciting idea," Debbie says. "A simple vase of flowers can really make someone's day!"

The sister's say they sweat a lot, use a lot of bug spray and drink a lot of Gatorade, but it's well worth the time and effort to brighten someone's day. A few hours once a week can bring months of fond memories to the zinnia recipients. Some of the flowers are delivered to an area health care facility where patients are able to "flower arrange."

"They really love it," says Carol.

This "for sure" is the first of many zinnia patches on a lone acre in Lebanon. They believe the zinnias will reseed themselves, just like Mother Nature intended.

When Jan and Carol visited their sickly aunt back in Memphis they would see a single rose in a vase and remember how their aunt would brighten up when she looked at it. They figure bold and beautiful zinnias would do the same here in Wilson County.

The sisters say they hope when they finally reach the stage of homebound someone will bring them flowers. Maybe a grown up Olivia, says Carol.

Their mother - who "somehow never planted zinnias" but every other flower in the world - suffered from dementia, they reveal. She loved flowers.

"I think she would be proud of us," they say in unison. "Something so simple as flowers in a little vase can brighten a room!"

And bring a little sunshine in the golden years.


Zinnias, stout and stiff,
Stand no nonsense: their colors
Stare, their leaves
Grow straight out, their petals
Jut like clipped cardboard,
Round, in neat flat rings.

Even cut and bunched
Arranged to please us
in the house, in the water, they
Will hardly wilt- I know
Someone like zinnias: I wish
I were like zinnias.

~Valerie Worth

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