Tuesday, May 28, 2013

in a spring garden

This is the first year I've really felt good about my garden. Now, that being said, I have a few caveats. One is that I've enjoyed many, many small successes in gardening over the years: morning glories that took off at my apartment in Athens, Ohio; potted plants cheering many a front porch and entryway; a thriving peony transplanted from my dad's garden. I've got a few really hardy, flourishing lavender plants (my favorite herb), and my day lilies are pretty spectacular. The other caveat is that, though I'm pretty happy, we have a long way to go. We're reworking all of the landscaping right now, replanting the beds on the side of the house, and converting our backyard to sod and a fruit garden (it is currently gravel). The work appears to be endless. 

The difference this year is that I'm accepting that it's endless. If I do even one small gardening thing each day - even if its just deadheading something or making sure everything is watered - that's enough. All these years I've been frustrated and felt inadequate because I expected too much of myself, thought I'd have results and a full and productive garden in way less time than its taken.

There's a reason I've been so unrealistic. My mom was an exceptional gardener, and my dad still is. I grew up selling vegetables with them at the farmers market, way, way, WAY before selling at the farmers market was the cool thing to do. We sold tomatoes, beans, peppers, lettuce, herbs, and flowers, flowers, flowers. My mother grew many varieties, but some favorites were zinnias, snapdragons, globe amaranth, nicotiana, statice, cosmos, purple coneflower, sweet Annie. She would cut flowers Friday night and early Saturday morning, arranging them in old coffee cans and olive oil tins for sale at market. We would drive the flowers into town in crates in the back of our squeaky red and white Blazer, the whole car filled with the scent of plants, blooms, and earth.

With this as my backdrop, I thought I'd be a natural. After all, I literally grew up in the garden, eating raw green beans straight from the plant.

So when my first vegetable garden was an utter failure - choked with weeds, leggy and unproductive tomato plants, cucumbers and zucchini that cross-pollinated into a mushy, flavorless mess - I felt like I'd lost out, like some gardening gene that my mother surely had was lost in translation. Incidentally, her father was also a master gardener, champion roses still gracing the borders of homes he hasn't tended since well before his death 30 years ago.

Today, though, sitting in the shade, enjoying newly bloomed peonies, day lilies in full leaf, coriopsis covered in buds, I noticed Dora playing in the dirt. It struck me that perhaps gardening skill isn't what's inherited, but instead what we pass down is the desire to garden, the need to put our hands in the soil, the willingness to take a chance. It has never occurred to me before that my mother probably also had gardening failures, that there was probably also a time in her life when she wondered if Carl Brady's gardening prowess has skipped a generation. It was so freeing and forgiving for me to imagine that, to realize that perhaps there was a day, in a spring garden so many years ago, when my mom thought, "I feel good about the garden this year, finally".

It is so easy to see in ourselves only imperfection, while seeing in so many others all of the things we wish we could be and cannot. Consider this for a moment, though. In your chosen field, or in the field of your passions, imagine the master, the one you most admire, the one who appears to have it truly figured out. There was a time when they didn't know what they were doing either. Even the master was once the apprentice.

I don't know why this thought was so surprising to me, but it was. But what 's so great about it is not only that it allows me to forgive myself the garden failures, but it reminds me of my mother's humanity as well. And as I am finding now, as one whose mother has been gone for 8 years, those glimpses of her humanity are a precious and far too rare pathway to reconnection. If I can, for a moment, imagine us having the same shortcomings or uncertainties, then we are together again, even if for only a brief sliver of time. 

The new side garden will be planted soon - cleome, nicotiana, peonies - all things my mother grew. Dora and I will go out in the foggy morning to water our new plants, all of them stretching up to the heavens with spindly green arms and pink flowers. We will tend to them with gentleness and imperfection. We will spell out their names like memories.

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