Heart and Soil

Spring is one of the most glorious seasons in New England. It feels like living in the middle of a time lapse video in the way that things quicken to burst, bloom, bud, and basically run amok. A leafless tree in the morning sports a full, arbor afro by the end of the day. Magnificent. It’s as if Mother Nature decided to juice herself on Red Bull and Meth just to “see what might happen.”

It’s also the time of year when a whole host of my own hang-ups take root (pun sort of intended).

It means tending—to mulch or not to mulch, that is the question that everyone is happy to answer with their own rule of green thumb, but continues to leave me baffled. It means an inventory of what survived another season, what mysteriously disappeared (“failure” whispers the soft indentation where the green thing had been not more than 6 months ago) or was taken down by fungus or some rare species of beetle that hasn’t been seen in this area since dinosaurs roamed the earth. It means the overwhelming, near paralyzing decision about what to plant and where. What’s the difference between part-shade and part-sun? Is there an app for that?

It’s too much. My teeth itch just writing this.

Somehow going to the garden center makes it worse, and yet I find myself returning season after season to this botanical house of ill repute like a gambler who thinks she can take the house.

I can feel my jaw tighten as I walk through the automatic doors into the humid and wonderfully perfumed greenhouse. Baskets bleeding fat blossoms sway lazily overhead like some kind of madman’s beautiful diabolical booby traps. People look so happy, so relaxed, so confident maneuvering their carts chocked full of pots and palettes of flowers and veggies. What do they know that I don’t? I imagine them going home to their organically maintained yards awash in lush, green grass. I picture them moving swan like through gardens so perfectly manicured they would make a French aristocrat weep. Maybe they pause briefly to admire a new, exotic strain of orchid bought on the black flower market. Believe me, if you can buy an organ online you can buy contraband fauna. A plague of snails, which I only recently discovered were not welcome harbingers of healthy plant life, but ruinous slimy bastards, on your houses, I think.

I clutch a piece of paper, my map, my guide, my weird talisman on this quest. On it, I’ve written a list of Latin names along with cryptic notes—“good for near Holly bush,” “dry will work,” and “full sun, fence, not side.” They’re clues to a riddle I wrote and still cannot solve.

I want to stick to this list, badly. I want to fill my patches with goodies that will thrive and be happy. When it comes to the garden I can’t help but think in these, somewhat embarrassing, emotional terms. I associate this with the vernacular of gardening from my childhood. I remember walking around the yard with my mother and Nona as they weeded and pruned and clipped whatever was growing. “She’s getting too much sun, so she’s not very happy here,” my Nona might say, gently cradling a stalk in her hand and looking into the flower’s tiny, vulnerable face as if they were speaking directly to each other. There’s so much heart involved in growing and of that, I have it to give in spades and spades. The head you need–the willingness to crack the code of Ph soil levels, proper drainage, and the quirks of cultivation—is where I seize up.

I rarely stick to the list. I am easily seduced by something with tall, violent magenta stalks. I suddenly decide that the plant with variegated leaves and bursts of pink is better than whatever it was I was going to stick near the Holly bush per my notes. It’s like going to the shoe store for sensible flats and gorging yourself on impractical open-toed, strappy stilettos.

I leave with cardboard boxes of leafy things, two of something, one of something else, nothing matched or coordinated. I feel the way you do when it’s closing time at the club and the lights come up, disoriented, a little foggy on the details, but certain that you had a good time.

I drive home and the buyer’s remorse sets in, but it’s more than that, it’s performance anxiety. Will these look ok? What if I kill them in the end despite my mothering? Who was I to think that I could have nice things growing in my yard?

flowerpot

It’s just a garden. I actually have to tell myself this. It’s just a small, nearly non-acreage plot of land of grass and flowers and trees and shrubs. It’s just a garden.

There’s a part of me that longs to give up and call it in the dramatic tone of the surgeons on medical shows, wrenching off the gloves: you just don’t have the skills, the green brain. It’s the part that wants to be free of garden envy, to be done with Pinterest make-your-own-flower-boxes-repurposed-from-old-shutters-and-car-mufflers disasters. But there’s another part of me that hangs in there and forges ahead despite the tide of trial and error.

It’s the part of me that can see my Nona bent over the cherry tomato plants that she somehow got to miraculously thrive in a stretch of sandy, malnourished dirt and grass running alongside our driveway. She’s checking the undersides of the leaves for slugs, snails, and other nasty critters. As she works, she picks the plump, ripe rounds and drops them into the fold of her house dress, which she gathers in a makeshift tray. Every few minutes she pauses and pops one of the juicy red tomatoes in her mouth as if she were a kid with one of those cinnamon gumballs from a quarter candy machine. She smiles and turns her face to the sun.

That’s the part of me that picks up the trowel, the part I nudge to get moving because the light is climbing and soon it will be too hot to weed or dig. That’s the part of me that whispers, it’s not just a garden, it’s your garden.  It’s weird and a little wild and ruled by impulses that might not make sense to someone walking by, but it’s clearly loved with conscientious hands and a generous heart. I smile and turn my face to the sun.

 

 

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10 thoughts on “Heart and Soil

  1. So beautifully written. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything that so perfectly captures the indecision and hope associated with gardening. Your metaphors are spot-on (and hilarious!).

    I especially like the parts where you mention your Nona. I know people who, like her, can make something grow in the most matter-of-fact way. It’s infuriating! And here I am, googling left and right, on maintaining your orchids and pH levels for so and so plant, etc. etc. etc. forever!

    Truly a gorgeous post. Thank you for writing it!

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    1. Oh thank you so much for your kind and thoughtful words! I really appreciate it and am grateful to know I’m not alone in my “garden variety angst.” 🙂 I do love these plant friends so much and want to do right by them..some people are gifted with a natural “way,” others need to make do with the skills we gots 🙂 Thanks and hope you’re doing well with your garden this year too!

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  2. To me, gardening is the place where I get to try and fail without anyone judging but myself. It’s where I let the fear of failure behind. It’s my yoga, my meditation, my shrink, all at once!

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    1. Marie! Love this! You are so right…it should be a place where you can play, be, and just enjoy getting close to nature. Judgement-free zone! 🙂 Thanks!

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  3. I love it and I’m indulging in a long comment because it’s my first comment on your site. I’ve been gardening in the Finger Lakes since 1973. Every year, I hear in my head: “you’re growing too much stuff and don’t you have the great American memoir to write?” I’ve bought plants from the same greenhouse as long as I’ve been here and know what always fails. For trees and shrubs, I gave up on fragile plants after many failures (five redbuds in five years) and went with plants growing in yards of abandoned farmhouses. They’re thriving long after the gardeners are dead.

    My grandma in Missouri got me hooked when I was six. I can imagine your Nona communing with the tomatoes and cherishing each one.

    I buy too much. And then a friend gives me more. Somehow it all gets in the earth or a bigger pot before a soaking rain. I’m mildly anxious until I know each plant has a home. Some flowers get stuck between the tomatoes to develop roots for transplanting into the flower beds when the Dame’s Rockets and Poppies are spent. Somehow, the crazy colors work. Every year I have a little more faith.

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    1. Elaine: you are a gift! Thanks so much for your beautiful and thoughtful comment. You certainly have the right attitude on the whole gardening journey…it’s not about chasing after someone else’s ideals or visions or actual plants, but about doing all things with love and intention and joy. Living in Boston, I pass by so many row house that line busy, noisy, polluted boulevards with front yards that can’t be more than 3×3. And I have seen some of the most brilliant shrubs and wild, happily growing flowers in these spots. It’s all the energy you bring. Thanks for the reminders! 🙂

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