A Piece of Earth

I started gardening in earnest 11 years ago. It was a project I took up to keep my kids busy in the summer, something to get them outside, teach them a little biology, give them a chance to help make something grow. I rented a 20X30 plot from the park district, did some research, and set to work. My son, who was 11 at the time, enjoyed himself for about two weeks, at which time the experience became a chore. My daughter never really enjoyed it, as she is seriously averse to any kind of bug or crawling critter. And so just like so many projects moms plan for the kids to do, the garden became my sole responsibility.

But unlike other unfinished kid projects, the garden became my source of happiness (other than my family, of course!)  and I turned to it for an escape. It became my quiet place, an avenue for physically venting frustrations (using heavy, sharp, metal hand tools is a GREAT way to kill people unpleasant things in your imagination!), an opportunity to be alone with my thoughts. And it has taught me many, many things. For instance:

1) Weeding: At first, I couldn’t identify the weeds from the seedlings. It took me a couple of summers, but I eventually could tell which ones were supposed to be there and which ones were bad news. Now I can get rid of the bad ones when they’re still small, before they cause too much damage.

–I’ve had a similar learning curve with people. I tend to think, a la Anne Frank, all people are inherently good but really, some people are truly bad, or at least bad for you, and shouldn’t be allowed a foothold in your life. Cut them out before they cause problems.

2) Space is important: Seedlings like to be swaddled, held firmly in the comfort of a peat pot. But they can’t stay there forever. If they’re kept in too small a pot, they won’t grow to their full potential. Also, some plants–sweet peppers, for instance–like to be nestled next to each other, and some plants–pumpkins–like to be spread out. Similarly, it’s important to know which plants should live near each other–tomatoes and basil are very happy together, and provide mutual benefit–and some plants should NOT be together–like leeks and peas.

–I eventually realized that I have a greater need for space than the typical suburbanite, that the suburbs are like a small peat pot that makes people (maybe just me) petty and small and stunted. I know for sure that there are some people and experiences that are *not* good companions for me, and it’s best for me to simply keep my distance.

3) Trimming: Having a garden bursting with foliage may seem like a good thing, but many plants benefit from regular trimming, and actually do better if big hunks of their leaves are removed appropriately. Tomatoes will produce bigger, better fruit if you trim the suckers, the branches without blossoms, so the plant can channel its xylem/phloem to the delicious fruit.

–I personally function better without a lot of extraneous material around me. Don’t you? I can think more clearly when I don’t have to expend energy on things that don’t matter. Trimming my mental clutter improves how I interact with my world. I don’t do a perfect job of reducing mental clutter, but I make an effort.

4) Water: My first couple of summers, I over-watered. Big time. I barely allowed the topsoil to become dry before I watered it again. A wise, seasoned gardener pointed out that my overzealous watering was actually hurting my plants. If water is always available near the top of the soil, the plant never reaches its roots down into the dirt, and may miss some important nutrients by staying near the surface all the time. The result for the water-coddled plant is low fruit production or smaller fruits or none at all. Less frequent, deep watering is essential for the plant to put down deep roots and eventually bear fruit. The time to go nuts with watering is when the plant is bearing fruit. It needs sustenance during production.

–Putting down roots has been a challenge for me. There are a few places–my husband is one of them–where I have established connections, all a result of long, regular, nourishing draughts of support and love. Those are my permanent taproots.

5) Timing: Peas can go into the ground in April. If they are planted later, say June, they will get fried by the hot weather. But peppers LOVE the heat, so they should not be planted outside in April. And in this area, planting beans is a tricky situation; you have to wait until you see plants in the area soybean fields. If you plant too early, bugs will eat all of your young bean plants, leaving a trellis of vines draped in leaves so holey they look like lace. And lettuce, while it can produce all summer long, needs to be harvested regularly before it bolts and becomes bitter.

–Timing is probably the trickiest of all of these lessons, because reality is much more nuanced. How do I know if it’s time to leave the miserable job or wait it out? When do I let my daughter go off to school without an aide? Only experience–usually bad–can truly inform these decisions. But the longer I’m around, the more opportunity I have to apply what I’ve learned. I do love that about getting older.

6) Fallow: I learned this term years before I started gardening, and I latched on. The idea is that the field needs a break in between crops, a rest to rejuvenate the nutrients in the soil. Too frequent crop cycles strip the ground of the things needed to grow anything, and the field eventually becomes unusable.

–Every one of us needs a rest. We cannot go endlessly from activity to activity and expect to give our best to everything. I believe very strongly in the power of rest to heal our bodies and our minds. My mother used to repeat “sleep knits up the ravel’led sleeve of care” often, so much that I thought she made it up (it was Shakespeare). But in the larger rhythms of life, beyond day to day, when I have cycles of intense activity, I expect to have a fallow time, a low-activity period during which my stores of emotional and intellectual energy can replenish. Sometimes, a fallow period is thrust upon me, and I resent it like crazy, but I eventually accept it for the cyclical benefit it is.

I think about these things whenever I’m in the garden. I use the time in the garden to escape the noise of my life, but I find myself turned again and again to the applications of all things horticulture to the practice of understanding life. Maybe these are just my framework for understanding the vagaries of adulthood, my simplistic schema for making sense of patterns.

The garden is my instructor, my guide to accepting the flow of my life, a provider of the tools I use to make sense of my world. As disappointed as I was that my children weren’t as entranced as I was, I am glad they opted out of the garden so I could explore these lessons on my own.

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