Confessions of an Unproductive Gardener.
This summer was my first chance to have a garden.
To be real, I blew it.
I’ve spent my life so far trying to plant a garden. Which is so deceptively obtainable on the surface, but when you think about it the prerequisites are actually pretty lofty.
You need a home.
Not only a home—you either need to own your home, or if you do rent then some sort of agreement where the landlord doesn’t mind if you landscape. Although time and energy and money spent landscaping space that somebody else owns feels karmically like indentured servitude, so I’ll walk it back and say that to garden and get the feeling that I need from it, I needed to own a home.
Then, the resources.
Gardening is thought of as this brick-and-mortar, gritty kind of lost-art activity by those of my generation: millennials and Gen Z. But here’s the reality: seeds cost a bit, but what costs much more is the trays, the dirt, the lamp for light, and the time. The time needed to plant, care, tend to them. And also enough margin of disposable income that should your plants die tragically and despite careful tending, you will trickle small tears of loss rather than complete body-shaking heaves of financial ruin.
And so, at 32, here I am. Prerequisites are in place, and damn it this year I was ready to garden. A garden to catapult me to the garden-to-table genre of households. A garden to finally grow my own herbs, be the neighbor who delivers squash to your doorstep, makes homemade salsa with my own tomatoes and says things like “served with a side of salad straight from the backyard.”
And then—well, as you know, COVID-19. And then a good friend’s stage IV cancer turned an aggressive corner. And then George Floyd was murdered, which opened in myself a new door of growth that needed to open but dang, okay 2020. And then a neighbor in my small mountain town completely disappeared on a bike ride (a mother of two, on Mothers’ Day, who has not been found so please if you know anything call the Salida tip line). And then…and then…and then…
I went to the seed aisle. I stared at each insta-crop: all the practicality, the potential, the fast-track to bettering something: grow my own food and share some with others. The productivity, and when social distancing, what better way to be productive than in the backyard?
I couldn’t. I turned the corner. To the flowers. And I am tempted to tell you that I bought flower seeds and move on, but the truth is that I did that yes, and then I also bought flowers. Plants. Beautiful, perennial foliage that does not produce food, and does not help decrease carbon footprint (maybe a tad from the carbon recycling, but to be sure not as much as growing my own food, so I’m not going to wax ethical about this decision). Buttery petals and delicate stems that smell floral and grassy and not the least bit like edibility.
I planted lavender, not one plant but three, because let’s be honest, here in summer 2020, we need all the lavender. I planted catmint, to fill a corner where something wild and tangled belonged.
When we were young, my mom used to put tea outside with these leaves in it to seep all day. “Sun tea.” I can’t wait for that later this season. Perfectly fresh, slightly tangy sun tea, which dodges past any sort of nutritive value and goes straight to refresh the tired, aching places in my chest.
I planted asters, lilies, golden yarrow, and a weeping spruce.
I look out the window at it every morning while I work and feel awe in its ability to read a room, noble beauty but humble, pulsing green that droops down the slightest bit in reverence to the state of the world. It reminds me of Waylon Lewis’, editor in chief of Elephant Journal, reminder at the beginning of conference calls:
“Take a good posture: sit up, shoulders down. Deep breath. Now, give it all away.”
And he bows.
And we bow.
I planted columbines, these, and sunflowers being the only seeds I successfully was able to sprout and transplant. Columbines for wild mountain rebels that bloom where planted, that remind me a sense of adventure can come from my backyard just the same as traveling to a distant country. Sunflowers because my sister grew them from seed every summer. She’d keep them in Dixie cups until ready to go outside, and late in August, Ashley’s sunflowers marked the dog days, their goofy yellow faces dripping with midwest humidity.
I hung a bird feeder right above the prayer flags; a good friend of mine told me that the birds unravel her prayers and carry them away, and that gives her reassurance that the universe receives them. I’m still waiting, but until then the least I can do is offer them some food.
I started a climbing rose that I’m told will get copper buds and then huge, petaled bursts. I put it against our fence, where I hope the neighbors will get to see it too, out the window while they eat breakfast cereal and the news is babbling from the big screen TV facing outward.
I collected rocks in the river beds for a week straight. Once I had enough, I dug out a faux-stream in the middle of my ex-vegetable garden and newly deemed flower garden. I dotted the gurgling river bed (confession: there is no water, and no gurgle, as these things are hard to come by in fake river beds) with sprays of moss, which initially I was told would dry up but which I am proud to report have gotten downright soft and fluffy, and are even edging up and over other rocks.
After a couple of days, they’ve even popped with tiny white flowers that open in the afternoon and close by evening. It feels like a secret, but here I am disclosing.
The hours I’ve been out there are bordering on insanity. I wake up and think of gardening. I check on things at least every other hour. I fall asleep and wonder if everything has enough water for the night. To be sure, this is transference at its most obvious. But it’s given me purpose—this creating of beauty.
I shift in my birks a little, nervous, when I tell people I’ve been spending my time gardening, and the follow-up is immediately, “What kinds of vegetables?” I’m trying to get out of the shame, but it still comes. “No, just flowers.” In a world that is falling apart, I’ve been devoting my energy, resources, attention, time to…perennials.
But hear me out. If ever there was a year to grow flowers and abandon the productivity of the vegetable garden, heck. This is it. The grocery stores have food (for now, but let’s not get started.)
What is lacking is beauty.
Loveliness for the sake of loveliness.
Hope: nothing says “hope for the future” like pouring my heart out to a garden of perennials.
Perennials aren’t their best in the first year. Hardly even ever the second. And they don’t always survive. But if they do, and often they do, they get better with time. Slowly, a garden goes from individual plants to a creature of oneness, a wild and overgrown thing of its own—where the catmint grows under the weeping pine, whose west-facing branches intertwine with the copper-blossomed rose vine.
And so, I will continue to work, to better myself and be better in a body-mind and world that could stand a whole lot of better. I will continue to advocate and ally in the ways I know how, and learn new and better ways as I go.
But here at home, I’m planting perennials.