We all tend gardens.
Tens of millions of us battle heat and storms and unrelenting weeds, all for that golden moment when we pluck that first rich tomato of summer or fill a basket to the brim with yellow zinnias. We save a little on our grocery bills, welcome the release of tension as we work the soil, revel in that supreme sense of satisfaction as we harvest the fruits of our labor.
We tend figurative gardens, too. We cultivate our careers and families, sow the seeds of hopes and dreams. We weed out illness, transplant hope, nurture ideas. In countless ways, we strive to create, shape, guide, produce. We are compelled to be at least a tiny part of something bigger than ourselves, outside of ourselves.
Yet it is in our garden plots that our spirits take flight in unique, myriad and sometimes surprising ways. It is here that we become something more than just neighbors and voters and architects. We come to realize that we are the fortunate ones who know that dirt is not dirty, that returning home with a line of fine soil under our fingernails is a badge of honor. We begin to see gardens where other see unkempt bushes, or a weed-choked pond, or a forgotten cemetery or nothing at all. We gaze at a patch of yard and envision not the bleak snowdrifts of winter or the searing furnace of summer, but the endless possibilities. We anticipate not just the crops, but also the process. We feel not just the muscle aches of long hours of work, but also the serenity of being stewards of the soil. We replay the experience of the sudden summer shower, hear and feel again the plump, cooling drops as they pepper our sweat-drenched faces and shirts.
Consciously or not, those of us who till the land for more than subsistence are striving for something beyond business as usual. Despite all of its limitations and flaws, the garden appears in the mind as the perfect setting, a special place of creation and refuge. This is where we yearn to be, where we feel an unequalled sense of connectedness, of purpose.
My first garden was a sad little affair, maybe three feet by five feet, wedged between two small Northern Virginia houses next to a chain link fence. I dug up sod, chopped up wet clay, poked a few holes about four inches deep and much too close together, and dropped a few tomato seedlings into place. Once in a while, I remembered to water them, and at times I nearly drowned them. I tied them to sticks to try to thwart their inexorable nature to lean in search of adequate sun. I wound up with two or three egg-sized tomatoes before the squirrels got to them or they succumbed to blossom end rot or any of the countless other misfortunes that befall plants in countless backyards.
The next year, an earlier start. A few spinach and lettuce plants struggled through the soggy late-winter and early-spring months, producing enough greens for a couple of tiny salads. That was about 35 years ago. Since then I have tried many things; I have failed at many things. For a few long, frustrating years I lacked the opportunity to plunge a spade into soil. When gardening returned to my life, how strangely foreign yet totally familiar it felt, as if I never had left the pastime or it had never left me. How much has changed through the years? Truth is, I was a terrible gardener. I still am, in some ways.
Truth is, we all are. But we keep at it. This desire is undeniably strong within us. It’s embedded in our DNA. We find simple comfort at the sight of earthworms enriching our land. We appreciate the slow unfolding of delicate dahlia petals. We want to believe that no pest can dare disturb our treasures. But when bad things do happen, something forces us to challenge the gardening fates, to defy the odds of drought and disaster, to fight back and make it right.
For every longtime practitioner of the garden arts, there is a would-be gardener who has yet to purchase her first trowel or swat his first mosquito. If you have never thought of yourself as a gardener but are tempted to try, know that there’s no entry fee, no exam. Or if you used to garden but parted ways with the hobby because of the demands of modern life, take comfort in the knowledge that the sun still comes up in the morning and sets at night. It’s alternately too cold and too hot, too wet and too dry. Slap on those gloves, dust off the shovel, buy a package of carrot seeds or a six-pack of petunias, and enjoy the ride.
Because this is a journey. We don’t know where it goes. Maybe it just goes in circles as the seasons cycle through. Maybe we don’t understand it fully, and maybe we never will. There is a lot to love in a garden even if we cannot catalog and comprehend everything that transpires in it, even if we fail to understand—and accept—why some things flourish and others perish.
No matter how long we hone our gardening skills and invest our hopes in the rich earth, we are astounded again and again by what we see, feel, smell, touch and taste. Every time we set foot in a garden, we have an opportunity to see the world anew. We learn something about plants. We comprehend something about nature. And, often when we least expect it, we discover something about ourselves. Gardens have a unique way of providing lessons about happiness, loss, love, humility, pride, persistence, death, life and so much more. The trick is being there, and being aware, when even a tiny fragment of the truth is revealed.
We always fail as gardeners, at least in some small way, and we always come back. We have something to prove, something more to accomplish, something new to try. Maybe we feel the need to make a mark on the world, even if that mark is blackened by the first brutal frost of fall. Or maybe the world feels the need to make a mark on us. Whatever it is, whatever form it takes, we know that there’s something out there calling us, chewing inside of us, stirring our imagination and dreams. Mother Nature won’t let go.
Back to Top | Back to Home Page