When I was a little girl, we had a huge garden just west of the front yard. It felt, to me, as big as a football field. Probably it was a fraction of that size – maybe one third or one half. But to me, the rows were nearly infinite. Mounds of green leaves that went on for days. A jungle of tomato plants, so tall and green and spindly, but jeweled with sunny yellow flowers that disappeared into apparent nothingness until the sneaky green fruit gave itself away with bright red, orange or yellow skin.
I was aware that this large garden was work. But to me it was mostly great fun. Probably because as a young girl I didn’t bear responsibility for the most back-breaking tasks. Daddy tilled the soil, and he and mom hoed the rows. I tried to hoe, but the handle was so long I was prone to knocking into my parents’ thighs or – worse – their bent-over heads.
My specialty was laying seed. Daddy gave me the specifics: how many seeds to put in each space, how deep into the soil, how far apart. This precision brought me joy. Thrilled to be trusted with the task, I counted even the tiniest seeds. For spacing, I would snap a twig to just the right length, laying it down as a measuring stick from one planting to the next.
Before carefully covering the seeds with soil, we watered them. But how? Surely the garden hose didn’t reach from the back of the house to this distant garden. What did we do? Something tells me Dad finagled a system that siphoned water from a tank pulled by the tractor. Or maybe he did string hoses together to carry the water clear around the house and through the great yard. Occasionally I used a watering can. But that must have been Mom’s ploy to keep me busy. Our garden was far too large for watering cans to be a practical irrigation plan.
Once planting was done, Dad seldom appeared in the garden. His focus turned to the rest of the farm, while Mom kept up with maintaining and harvesting the garden. She and I weeded. A lot. Each weeding session began with a quick visual lesson: “This is a weed. This is a plant. Don’t pull the plants. If you see a worm or bug, tell me, so I can tell if it will help or threaten our crop.” She fearlessly snatched horned worms from tomato leaves and flung them far into the nearby timber.
Neither Mom nor I cared much for weeding. We both had hay fever, so our noses ran, and our eyes itched. Our knees and backs hurt. We sweat, got dirt under our nails and slapped hopelessly at the mosquitoes that attacked our temples and ankles. But our work was rewarded with a tall glass of tea and a triumphant view of tidy, weedless rows. Our plants had elbowroom to stretch and grow and bear fruit. Satisfaction!
After all that weeding, the first harvest was pure delight. Mom and I toted colanders to one end of the garden and began poking into each row to discover what was ready. A ready green bean practically jumps off the bush. And when one is ready, they’re all ready. They seemed to all appear at once.
Tomatoes were more gradual. I marveled at how one plant could hold orbs of every shade, and how only the ripe fruit would drop into my hand when I gave a gentle tug. If it didn’t drop, it wasn’t ready, Mom said.
Radishes were even more remarkable. In curiosity, I always pulled a few too soon each season. But I had scattered hundreds of tiny seeds, so I knew there would be plenty. Too young, the radishes would slide from the earth too easily, pale and skinny and limp. When ready, they fought my grasp, reluctant to leave the rich soil; but as their roots eased free, their green tops brought out round, crimson knobs. Finally, they would release fully, fat and red and heavy. Even though barely any dirt clung to their smooth skin, I could hardly wait to get them to the kitchen sink for a bath. On a farm where we used insecticides and hosted cats and other outdoor creatures, I was trained to wash before I bit into the bounty.
We withdrew goodness from that garden from spring through fall, from early peas and lettuce to late pumpkins and squash. In season, our table was full – flavorful, colorful and healthful. Yet there was so much extra to fill freezer bags and boxes and Mason jars, which we stowed in the cellar to use in the dormant months to come.
To this day, when I think of “abundance,” I picture a mountain of sweet corn, ready to be shucked and blanched and cut and frozen – and then the deep freezer so full of summer’s bounty that we could scarcely add a half-gallon of ice cream.
* * *
I don’t keep a garden now. My property is almost entirely in shade. And I am lousy with plants. I do treasure the best fresh fruits and vegetables from the grocery store – and even more from friends’ gardens when they have extra to share.
I have grown into a gardener of a different sort. My garden is words. I love to plant them. I have mastered the precision required to choose and place them in good order. I know the science of spelling and grammar, and I practice the art of editing – that backbreaking task of pulling out what threatens understanding. I keep at this work because I know the satisfaction that comes from culling out needless words so the fruit of the message can grow in people’s minds and hearts.
And oh how I respect the fruit of other writers’ labors! There is such pleasure in tasting another person’s brilliant words, carefully chosen and ordered and cleaned and beautifully presented.
For years I stored away my words, writing journals for no one’s eyes but my own. Occasionally I have shared a letter or eulogy or observation with friends and family, like giving a neighbor a jar of homemade preserves. Mostly I have sold my voice to big business – generating words to be a company’s own, while I earned cash but not credit.
Now I am entering a new phase of cultivating my garden of words. I work them daily. Not just mass marketing business words through corporate consulting (though that still pays the bills), but trying new gardening techniques through discipline and inhibition. By writing poetry every day, I’m learning to grow new writing varieties, explore hybrids and try different methods for bringing messages to fruition. And by blogging my poetry and other personal writing, I’ve opened a sort of road-side stand. Individual consumers can stop to see and touch and taste my work. They can tell me how they feel about it, and even suggest new crops for me to consider. At last, this writer has found a personal relationship with her readers. One that is flavorful, colorful and healthful.
It is good to be a gardener.
* * *
When we siblings met to discuss our “garden” musings, this essay prompted the following observations:
- Both Norma and I wrote about a literal garden of our childhood and a figurative garden of today.
- The garden really was that big — at least the size of a football field. No exaggeration.
- Though we grew up nearly two decades apart, Norma said it was remarkable how my vision of the garden is so similar to hers. Paul echoed the sentiment: “You nailed it.”
- For Paul, the words I wrote brought back a vision of my tiny hands and Dad’s big gnarly hands … and Daddy showing me how many knuckles to go down with each type of seed.
- Regarding the gardening itself, both Paul and Norma recalled that we didn’t water the garden, other than the first go-round of planting tomatoes. (I guess we just planted and prayed.) And neither of my siblings remembered planting seeds. They said Dad always planted sweet corn deep in the middle of the seed cornfield, so the raccoons couldn’t find it; and he used the planter to run long rows of beans in the garden. So either he changed his techniques when I came along, or he created work to keep me busy. Maybe both!