Why do I garden?
"Because I am"
It is the only answer I can give that seems to cover it all…
When I was very small, I learned the necessity of gardening, but learned little, if any, of the beauty that is gardening.
Looking back, perhaps the seeds of the beauty of gardening were sown just as assuredly as vegetable seeds were sown–by Annie–my grandmother. She never failed to take a few minutes to hol d my hand and then recite the 90th psalm with me. And there we were…in the sunshine, standing on the fertile earth…lifting our voices in prayer.
Our garden was over an acre in size, and most of what we ate, through the winter, was canned from what was grown in that ‘field’. Oh my God, when I was a little kid, it seemed HUGE! To tell the truth, even now, when I look at the area that it covered, I still think that it was huge.
It was a proper farm garden. Big stone steps leading down into it from a corner wooden gate. Fence the whole way around it, kept the cattle from sneaking in and trying the vegetables…and from consuming the garlic that lined two sides. Two huge apple trees stood at one end, near the barn, and just west of the grainery that edged the garden, was an old mine entrance.
Every spring when the garden was plowed, then harrowed (which they really do not do anymore) we had to scour the fresh soft dirt, and gather any rocks that we found. They were then thrown onto the mine entrance. One of the hazards of having your grandfather subsidize his well-baling income with a small family run coal mine. Just one more place that we were not to go…
To the left of the stone steps, there were currentberry bushes, that lined that whole side of the garden edge. There was a gate at the next corner, wide enough for a tractor and a wagon to pull through. It was handy to haul weeds that had been pulled, by the wheelbarrow, across the old lower lane and then dump over the fence of the pig yard.
And every day in the summer, it was a standing chore… "Hoe a row in the garden" Most days, it was a rushed job, just before mom and dad got home from work…
And then they would look and tell us to do it again tomorrow, "You didn’t get the roots out. They will grow right back again. Try again tomorrow!"
As I sit here, shaking my head. In Pennsylvania hard packed clay? Get the roots out?
There are probably still viable roots in the hard packed clay under the pole building (where that field of misery of a garden used to be) that a huge combine sits parked in now!
Huh! Get the roots…
The lower edge of the garden was the best! A juneberry bush, and a long row of gooseberries, and then the rhubarb… few lasted until they were properly ripened. We would sneak away from weeding every chance that we could… to pick those Juneberries and gooseberries.
In the dry of summer, watering was added to the weeding chores. There was a watering trough, spring fed, right above the garden next to the ‘chop house’. The chophouse was called that because…hmmm, leave me start here: an attached building was called the boiler house, and in it sat a big old steam engine, when it was not being pulled around to aid in the well-baling, it was used to power a ‘chopper’ that made animal feed out of corn and oats. Commonly called "chop". Cows, pigs, chickens…they all ate it.
We had a piece of garden hose scavenged from who knows where? And we would put one end in the watering trough, and run it down to the garden. Problem was…it did not reach the garden! So we had a couple of buckets, and a slew of 1gallon coffee cans. One person had to man the hose, to switch between buckets, and the rest of us ran back and forth, with our coffee cans, filling…and watering…filling…and watering…
The coffee cans? They were rarely idle. They were our berry picking buckets also…
So, as you can well guess, I actually hated gardening while I was growing up. I really never wanted to have one. I walked away from hoes and buckets, and jars of seeds…and never planned on looking back.
I did not garden at all during my teenage years; we no longer had a garden after grandma moved in with my aunt. Over half of my twenties passed, and three children came into my life, before I heard the call.
It would have been the spring when I was twenty seven years old… and I rented a little trailer on a country road… off of the sweetest older couple that a person can imagine. John and Peg.
John used to mow the grass with my middle child, Natters, on his knee. And Peg adored all three of my children too. My kids had just lucked into this extra set of grandparents living next door.
One spring morning, while I was hanging clothes out on the line, John walked past on the way to his workshop, and he commented that he and Peg talked about their old garden below the trailer…and if I would like to use it, that that was fine…
And the voice spoke to me… I don’t know if it was my grandmother’s voice, or some ancient wise elder that lives within us all, but something clearly said, "Yes, plant some seeds, pull some weeds, let your children witness life…"
And the voice of Teresa answered, without missing a beat, "Okay, but there will be no bitching."
The rest is history, some of it is funny history, and some of it is sweet history, but none of it is bitching history… because…you see–for me– gardening is not a necessity for physical survival…
It is however, a necessity for the survival of my sanity. It is a song that sings to my soul. It has opened my mind, opened my eyes, my heart…and upon many occasions, my wallet.
It was a huge lesson in knowing how much I do not know!
I missed my grandma’s gardening wisdom, and try though I might have… I could not recall her words in the garden. The only thing that kept coming back to me was reciting the 90th psalm with her… "You who dwelleth in the house of the Most High, and abide in the shadow of the Almighty…"
I had my work cut out for me…so I read every book that I could get my hands on…in fact, I devoured them. I became a non-fiction snob…
And then I dug in the dirt, and learned that a lot of books have it all wrong! Or perhaps, the truth is, there is no way to get it all right! What works for one, will not work for another.
I moved back onto the family farm with my mom, after my dad passed way. My oldest brother farmed the fields, (lived elsewhere with his wife) and he contoured. When the first spring came living back in skunk hollow, he offered me an obscure corner of a field that was just inconvenient for him. Contour farming in hilly country can do this– create incovenient triangles at the edges of sweeping turns in fields..
I accepted… and there it really began. For the next eight or nine years, I moved around the farm each spring, taking a new inconvenient corner that crop rotation produced.
In the process, I developed an attitude, if you will, about organic farming…hmmm… not really thinking about the fact that, unlike other gardeners, I was doing the most serious crop rotation that a gardener can do…and thwarting a lot of insects in that process. But what I never realized, until I had my own ground, was what I was not developing….
A true sense of gardening, a true sense of being a steward of the earth in the act of gardening. A connection to the very ground beneath my feet, and the sky above me. I had somehow managed to become a textbook gardener, yet the truth of gardening had completely eluded me.
It was a slow awakening for me… and one of those beautific bits of wisdom that you can only recognize when you look behind you. I was still far too engulfed in the ends, the sum, the total of my accomplishments, to comprehend the very awakening of my soul within the confines of earth and sky.
Little did I know that when a gardener stands long enough in the fertile soil, in sunshine and in rain , that the roots of the growers soul are setting down. Tentatively at first, and then they run deep and wide.
So it was with me. My no bitching rule was set down on a homemade stepping stone, with colored glass bits embedded as flowers… and the whimsy, and the quirky replaced proper and organized.
I no longer planted 100 tomato plants, I grew two for the table, and then planted dahlias and gladiolas instead. My sweet corn was replaced with broom corn, and my rows of waxed beans for canning were repalced with scarlet runner pole beans, climbing towers of newly cut sumac saplings. My garden teepees that produced prettier flowers than beans.
The cucumbers were no longer left to sprawl, by the dozens, all over the garden, but instead were invited to climb tomato cages… just for the oddity of it. I grew zinnias, and strawflowers and statice. Russian sage and tansy edged the garden and ran away forming a brushy edge. I gathered all of them, along with sage and marjoram, tied in bundles and hung from the rafters of the tiny garden shed. There they dried and then I made bouquets and gave them away…and what was left in the shed, the field mice shredded for nests!
Rock gardens began springing up, with marjoram and thyme, rhubarb and parsley…garlic and the ever present flowers… No garden should be without flowers!
Sunflowers towered majestically over everything else, and the volunteers that came in later years were permitted to exist in the middle of the strawberry patch. Never picked or dried, they stood, skeletons, stripped nearly bare by overwintering birds, and when spring found them they were bent over by the elements…and age, like old women.
I learned to measure my successes by the moment, not by the season. Two weeks of lush peonies brought more satisfaction than bushels of tomatoes ever did.
I gained a healthy respect for the birds, for the swooping and darting barn swallows that went on a feeding frenzy just before dusk, and I learned to watch the sky above me. I noted the clouds, whether they were mare’s tails (rain in 36 hours) or whether they were puffy white cumulus clouds (fair weather). I watched rain fall, and gray days, with gratitude, and I watched the sunset and the moon rise while I walked my weary body back up to the house.
I learned to tell a lamb’s quarter seedling (weed) from a voluteer tomato seedling. In fact, I can look at most vegetable and flower seedlings…and identify whether they are a friend or foe. That brings me to the most important part of gardening philosophy to me.
I used to believe that gardening was all about nurturing…about growing things…about life.
Never did the thought enter my mind, that gardening is every bit as much about death.
I don’t think that anything can compare with gardening when it comes to deciding…what lives, what dies…
A flower where it is unwanted, becomes a weed…
And a well placed weed, may become a flower…where a divine hand has strewn the seed…
I garden because I am. There is no more or no less to that. It is my ‘me’ time. It is a time to share my thoughts, with the Power that is. It is a silent song, sung to the heavens… sometimes in a voice of questioning, sometimes with a voice of unadulterated joy…and sometimes, a tear choked song…
It is a song without reason, and a song that is the reason, it harmonizes with the song of birds, the moan of the wind, it keeps time with the silent flapping of a butterfly’s wings, and the pounding of the rain on the garden shed roof.
It ebbs and flows with the seasons, it shouts, and it whispers. It enlivens my soul, and illuminates my mind.
Gypsies dance in the wind when the dandelion seeds fly, and tiny redcoats march on moss covered rocks. Sour grass sorel runs through the dirt like a fast spreading fire and thistles have become a beauty to my eyes, rather than an eyesore.
I have moved beyond control. Control and symmetry have no place in my gardening… or in the song that is being sung.
When I bend over to pull weeds, I am at once, old Annie, pulling, praying, pulling praying…and Teresa, pulling, dreaming, pulling, wondering, pulling…pulling…philosophising… life , death, sunshine, rain, the delicate balance and the miracle that it is…
It all comes full circle to each of us, sooner or later… and for me, it came in a garden…
And sometimes, when I seek the refuge in the shade of the wild juneberry tree, I am the willow–weeping, when the words wash over me…I am not really in the shadow of the juneberry, while in my garden I am "You who dwell in the house of the Most High, and abide in the shadow of the Almighty…"