I wrote this essay almost twenty-five years ago and have been thinking of it as I plant this year’s seeds, in a different garden in a different yard.
Under the guidance of Mrs. Keller, we kindergarteners first learned to grow vegetables, tucking handfuls of beans into the folds of damp towels. The sprouting of their serpentine roots fascinated and excited me. Stevie Cox ended the experiment one day when he flushed them down the classroom toilet because he didn’t like lima beans.
That experiment birthed my enchantment with growing things. The desire played out only in my imagination until early in the spring of 1994 when I started my own garden, decades after my first experience at age 5.
I grew up in a house that stood on over an acre of land, but my best persuasive efforts to create a garden failed. For my parents, a garden would be an eyesore; any interruption in their broad expanse of carefully tended lawn caused aesthetic indigestion. Besides, as they were quick to point out, we didn’t need a garden. Our neighbors produced enough zuchinni and beans to feed the entire township. They completely missed the point. Eventually, my interests shifted to other activities.
In March of 1994, my soon-to-be husband, Charlie, presented me with two-dozen cardboard cups nestled in a plastic tray, seven envelopes of seeds, and a bag of potting soil. “Here’s your garden,” he said with a hopeful smile, perhaps believing this project might nudge me out of a lingering winter melancholy.
We now lived in a place with a yard, and had permission to dig a plot. The time had come to create my very own garden. Over the next few days as I contemplated the seeds, I grew grandiose visions of what my life might be. I would have two gardens—vegetables AND flowers—and share the fruits of my labors with my neighbors and colleagues and become known for my botanical talents. I would be not only vegetarian, but also macrobiotic. I would wear Birkenstocks, grow my hair long, knit my own sweaters, and make soups and bake breads. I reveled in that image of myself, choosing to ignore the current realities of my less-than-healthy lifestyle.
I put little practical thought into the actual task of starting seedlings. I spread the packets out in front of me on the kitchen table, along with the little cups. There were dill, coriander, parsley, mint, and basil, as well as spinach, cucumbers, pole beans, and Boston lettuce. I read the instructions: “Plant ¼” deep.” “Plant in mounds 3’ apart.” “Plant in well-drained soil.” “Plant in early spring.” “Replant throughout the summer.” Never having had patience for following detailed instructions, I’ve worked my way through life via trial and error. Teachers today might call me a kinesthetic learner, but most people call me impulsive. I waved the details from my mind. Things grow when you water them, I figured. I had dirt and water and seeds. What else did I really need?
Charlie entered the kitchen as I had begun the planting project. He seemed pleased I was involved in and enjoying myself until he noticed I was using our flour scooper to add the soil to the cups. “We’ll eat what we grow, won’t we?” I argued.
To create little wombs for the seeds, I poked the end of a pen into the soil of each cup, then opened the seed packets. I suppose I never really considered how very small things are when they begin. One seed for each of the two dozen cups seemed ridiculous to me. What if it didn’t germinate? Why waste space? In a rare moment of foresight, I realized it would be useful to know what was growing in the cups, so I used the pen to label each. Then, I poked more “wombs,” poured seeds from each packet into my palm, and filled them. A little more soil on top of the seeds, and I prepared to water. The moment of conception was at hand.
A word of advice for novice seedling starters: dampen the soil before adding the water. Because I was now anxious to be finished, I put both trays in the sink and turned on the faucet. Soil and seeds floated in the puddles of water. Hmmm. No harm done, I thought, and added a bit more dirt to each cup. At least I couldn’t see the seeds anymore. I set the trays down on a card table by a sunny window and hoped our cat would not find the additions interesting enough to explore. So grow! I exclaimed. There was no more to be done now. I joined Charlie in the living room and picked up the novel I wanted to finish for the next night’s book group.
Days passed in a frenzy of long work hours and social obligations. At a restaurant during a dinner conversation with friends a week later, the realization seized me that I’d forgotten to water my garden-to-be. The quick wave of panic surprised me; I felt responsible for these little seeds I’d sown. At home later, and trying to ignore the cracked soil and dried-out cups, I gave each a healthy drink. Satisfied that the soil absorbed the water, I convinced myself that nature is hardy and a few dry days would not be enough to starve a seed. Then I watched my neat labels disappear as the water seeped through the cardboard. Ever the optimist, I assumed they would reappear as the cups dried out.
Each night when I returned from work, I checked my garden ruefully, nearly certain that my neglect in planting according to direction and negligence in watering properly had wrested the life force from the seeds. One night, I discovered a few pale green tips had nudged their way into the sunshine. I looked to see what had sprouted. No label. I had no idea whether the sprouts were coriander or cucumbers, but I didn’t really care. They lived!
After a month, there were numerous, leggy shoots; I had no idea how I would untangle them when it came time for planting. I purchased another tray and cups thinking I’d try my hand peas, radishes, and cosmos. I picked the cosmos thinking that if I couldn’t eat anything I’d planted, at least I would have flowers for the dining room table.
At my next visit to the garden store, I discovered that for slightly more than the cost of seeds and cardboard cups, one could purchase a six-inch high vegetable plant with one of those handy plastic sticks that identify the plant and tell you how long it will be until you can have it in salad. I couldn’t resist. I came home with two varieties of tomato, a sweet pepper plant, and broccoli. Charlie thought I had gone mad, and the garden book I bought supported his belief. It said the biggest mistake a new gardener can make is to plant too much.
The pre-rooted vegetables look far healthier than what I am coaxing along in the cups, and they will probably survive the outdoor transplant and bear more fruit than my seedlings. But nothing in the garden store, no matter how healthy or beautiful, surpasses the thrill I experienced when I saw the first green shoots emerging from the soil I had spooned into cardboard cups.
I spend my free time clearing shrub-sized weeds and ancient roots from the yard to make space for my garden. I have almost overcome my aversion to creepy crawlers and prefer to sift through the earth with my bare hands instead of wearing the gloves I purchased at the garden center. I find the earth in my plot is alive with hundreds of small creatures; each time I turn over a handful of soil, beetles and spiders and crawlers scuttle and slither for their lives. I feel a little guilty for disturbing the safe habitat they have enjoyed for such a long time in this neglected yard.
On a Saturday evening after Charlie had helped me rake up seasons’ worth of dead grass, and I had worked into the soil the insane amount of manure our friend Dave insisted would magically spur vegetable growth, I planted the garden. I found myself singing Dave Mallet’s Garden Song—Inch by inch and row by row, someone bless these seeds I sow; someone warm them from below ‘til the rains come a tumblin’ down… The next morning, I looked out our bedroom window. The yard was alive with movement. I smiled proudly as I saw the green plants in my new garden and counted fourteen birds feasting on the tasties we had turned up for them the day before. They come back daily now looking for more. Our cat watches them longingly from the window, feeling the stirring of instinct long subdued by her housebound life.
What began as a simple desire to have a vegetable garden has turned into something profound for me. I am often anxiously preoccupied with questions about the direction my life is taking and fears that I will fail to achieve my goals, but I find solace in gardening. I am present—just here now—when I feel the dampness of the dark soil on my hands, the resistance of an old root to my tug, the salty taste of perspiration in my mouth, or the tickle of an early-awakened bumblebee on my neck. The work is a physical form of meditation. At night my back aches, but it’s a good ache. It reminds me I am alive and makes me grateful I can bend and dig and carry heavy bags of weeds and old brush away to make space for new growth. It reminds me I have the ability to create something good.
Most mornings I drink my coffee from an old mug that bears a Ralph Waldo Emerson quote that inspires me: To laugh often and much; To win the respect of intelligent people and affection of children; To earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; To appreciate beauty, to find the best in others; To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition; To know that even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.
My garden will not erase the questions about how best to navigate my life, and I am too much a perfectionist to rest secure that I have succeeded because I have planted a garden patch. I don’t even know yet whether the vegetables in my summer salad will be fresh from my Salem garden or purchased dear at the local farmers’ market. What I do know now is that watching tiny seeds thrust their shoots toward the light reminds me that simply being alive is being powerful and creative and successful.