“Can we plant the pumpkins this day?”
“Let’s go see if the peas are growing!”
“Mom, the chickens are in the garden again.”
Oh yes, those are the sounds of spring around here. It’s our fifth year growing vegetables in our backyard. It’s amazing how much easier it is than that first April, when seven months pregnant, I dragged my husband out to help me dig a garden bed in our brand-new backyard. I wish I’d heeded the wisdom of permaculturists, who recommend observing and analyzing a site for an entire year before planting a single seed … and also the wisdom of my body, which wasn’t happy about my grand gardening visions.
Those are just two of the hard-earned lessons I’ve learned from five years of gardening. Except for one summer of gardening in Colorado several years ago, my husband and I are gardening newbies. My dad planted a vegetable garden for one season when I was a kid, and it was one of the most thrilling summers of my life. I couldn’t wait to go outside every morning to see what was growing. I knew I would be a vegetable gardener someday, and during the many years my husband and I spent renting and moving around, I longed to get my hands in the soil.
I wasn’t a natural.
Those first few years, I labored over my garden plans for hours while studying Steve Solomon’s Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades. I’m thankful for all I’ve learned from that book, and from others. I still refer to books. But even for a word lover like me, gardening is one of those things you learn by doing. And, oh, how I’ve learned.
My first big lesson: I’m not really in charge.
Yes, I can plant at a certain time and mix the fertilizer. I can water or not water. I can fence the chickens away from the first tender sprouts. But I’m collaborating with the weather, the rain, the soil, the wildlife, bugs, insects, and bees. There’s a certain amount of surrender involved.
Over the years I’ve surrendered to stunted squash, wilted cabbage, and unripe tomatoes. To chickens shredding the lettuce, bugs eating the spinach, kids eating the cherry tomatoes.
I’ve learned to let go of perfection.
My next big lesson: gardens have healing powers.
For a couple of seasons, gardening became a chore. Work. I’d trudge out and dutifully plant the seeds and water. I’d mix my fertilizer and mindlessly sprinkle the soil with it.
I believed in growing my own food. I wanted to harvest vegetables from my back yard. But I’m not sure I loved the actual gardening part.
Last spring, overwhelmed with caring for a three-year-old and an infant, I wasn’t sure if I’d plant a garden at all.
“Maybe it’s a good year to let our plots lay fallow,” I announced in March.
But, at the end of April, I got a great deal on a bunch of starts and planted.
Then my dad died.
I spent much of June in Colorado. And when I came back, it was incredibly uplifting to see the peas twisting up their trellises and the lettuce, rainbow chard, spinach, carrots, and heirloom tomatoes crowding their beds, reaching for the sun.
I spent so many hours with those plants over the next few months, watering and weeding, watching and listening, sitting.
I was surprised a few weeks ago when I pulled out my gardening journal. Every season I meticulously record what I plant, what’s growing and what’s not, when I fertilize, etc. Last year, I didn’t jot down a single note after April 29.
And yet, I learned more from gardening than ever before.
The garden is the perfect place to grieve. Quiet, buzzing with bees, bursting with life. The plants have so much to tell us about life and death, about patience, about just being.
Now, as I embark on my fifth growing season, I feel no sense of duty. No obligation. I only feel grateful and excited.
What lessons have you learned from your garden? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.