Gardening makes a lovely metaphor. Growth and hope manifest in a garden. Of course, death and despair happen there, too.
I have five or six books on the topic of gardens. There is one on container gardens I’ve glanced at once or twice, and two books on gardening in the Northeast, where, according to its color-coded maps, I live in Zone 4. On my coffee-table, sits a book of artfully photographed Maine gardens, with their granite ledges, wild blueberries, and abundant hydrangea. I also purchased a book of cut flower gardens and flower arranging on a whim, though I have yet to open it.
The most recent addition to my collection of gardening books is titled The Kitchen Garden. For the first time, this spring, it seemed growing food might be prudent, as well as … fun? At first, I protested; I have too much on my plate already. A long list of to-do’s and a weekly CSA Share from Joe’s Brook Farm is already more than enough.
In Vermont, sowing a vegetable garden in spring is part of the curriculum, like stacking wood in the summer, raking fall leaves, and or shoveling snow. And yet, I’d felt only ambivalence about the soil where so many others found solace, joy, and purpose.
Gardening is one of the rewards of middle age, when one is ready for an impersonal passion, a passion that demand patience, acute awareness of a world outside oneself, and the power to keep on growing through all the times of drought, through the cold snows, toward those moments of pure joy when all failures are forgotten and the plum tree flowers.May Sarton, Plant Dreaming Deep
In early June, I planted a small garden bed with tomatoes, basil, and thyme. Though it took not more than an hour to turn the soil and move the fragile sprouts from their seed trays to their new four-foot by four-foot bed, I was sweaty, bug-eaten, and unfulfilled by the task. I tossed a few extra tomato starts into a blue plastic tub I found in the garage and had sloppily filled with peat and potting soil.
It was a tiny practice garden. Every day, I emptied the basement dehumidifier bucket into it, dumping water sucked from the damp air. What I labeled resourceful and sustainably-minded, others might call lazy or careless. Whatever. Let them have their planning, weeding, dividing, and subscribing to seed catalog dreams. I added stakes for the tomatoes to climb and surrounded the lot with netting to keep wild critters at bay, then got on with my life.
By the end of July, thanks to my daily watering and poor drainage, the tomatoes in the blue tub developed “blossom end rot.” At first, my ambivalence shifted toward apathy. I expected to toss the lot into the compost. The cause of the fruit’s malformed flat yellow bottoms was easy enough to Google. What I didn’t expect was my determination to save the crop.
Suddenly failure was not an option, even though our local farmers, Mary and Eric, had beautiful organic tomatoes waiting for me each week. I stripped dead and yellowing leaves, secured the stalks higher on their plastic stakes, and improved the drainage by stabbing the plastic pot multiple times with gardening shears.
I’m proud to say the remaining tomatoes, and the ones that came next, were free of any end-rot—imperfectly round, blushing, juiciness. In August, we savored handfuls from my little harvest, and there are still more ripening on the windowsill.
My tiny garden victory planted new seeds.
After harvesting the last of the tomatoes, ahead of an early frost, I demolished the little practice garden bed—its size too constraining, its location less than ideal. Next year, I will build two, each four by eight, closer to our compost bin and water source and blessed, but not burned by the sun.
My gardening ambivalence has turned to anticipation just as the summer has given way to fall foliage and the foliage will give way to bare branches and the dormancy of winter. Why am I drawn toward gardening now? Surely, not because it is fun, or prudent for that matter.
On the surface, the metaphor is obvious. In a year marked by death and despair, where better to look for growth and hope than in a garden? If I dig deeper, I find the roots of my enthusiasm had been planted long ago and have only begun to bloom lately.
As I shop for bulbs online, I picture a young girl, digging in the dirt, and imagining her Vermont farm. She will spend the last weekends of autumn on her knees in the yard, planting all kinds of Tulips, Crocus, and Daffodil. This winter, she’ll buy vegetable seeds and wonder how to make the scrubby lower field bloom wildflowers filled with bees.