Learning from the Garden

A number of years ago, my partner and I moved into a fixer-upper. I saw the potential of the inside—the good bones of the small but well-built house. He saw the rocks and woods and graceful space around the house—a little under two acres but completely suffocated by trees of every size, and no sunlight.

I was frenzied. I had been living with him for four long years in a one-bedroom apartment in an urban suburb of New York City. For a country girl who’d lost my house and beautiful garden, that apartment was a nightmare. The new house, which hadn’t been lived in for several years, was a tabula rasa—anything we did would improve it.

I could finally have a garden.

But there was a problem: sun. The previous owners had never culled any trees, so there were dozens of very tall ones with no branches, just tops. My brother, a consummate gardener, came with a giant chainsaw and thinned them out. Still, the canopy of leaves blocked out light except for two hours a day in one small area. Our roof, new when we moved in, started to become mossy. I tried to garden in the sunny spot. The first year we had some vegetables. Flowers were spindly and blooms were sparse. I threw seeds randomly, but to little avail. Hosta thrived, and ferns and bayberry. But I wanted to grow food—tomatoes and peppers and berries.

We cut more trees. But the ones that remained, strengthened by the removal of competition, became taller and leafier, but only at the top. When we sat in our house and looked out, all we could see was a sea of tree trunks.

Then my brother suddenly became ill with cancer. Seventeen months later, he died, leaving a giant hole in my heart. I lost my taste for gardening. How could I do something so full of life when he was gone? How could I indulge my passion?

I ignored my garden. There wasn’t enough light, anyway. Neglected and unloved, perennials faded away or took over. Raised beds grew ugly weeds. Darwinism asserted itself in the absence of gentle human guidance. Each year I said, “This year I’m going to do it.” But I didn’t. I had no plan. And it was too big of a job.

Then I got cancer. The surgery was extensive, but effective. I was okay. But changed, somehow. I realized I wasn’t inviolable. I could die. What the hell was I waiting for?

What would I deeply regret not doing? There were several things on my list, chief among them writing a book about men and women, and having a garden. My partner asked me what I needed to have a garden. I said we had to cut more trees. He agreed. I began to stand outside and watch the sun’s path. I identified trees that would have to go. But my moment of transformation was yet to happen.

We had hired a man named Santos, from Guatemala, to help with weeding and moving some shrubs. We talked while we worked and he would offer suggestions on this area or that, and explain what he would do. I confided that I really wanted a garden, but it seemed like a lot of area to clear. He said he could do it, and described which trees should go first. So, starting in February, on warm days Santos, sometimes alone and sometimes with a friend, began cutting trees. With each tree, the sunlight in back of our house was brighter, warmer, not muted and dappled. Weeds grew with abandon, suddenly liberated from shade. We felt we could breathe. We had space and light. I paced out a garden, measured. I was fevered and excited. I bought plants and seeds, hoping to start the garden as soon as more trees came down. But it was taking a while. We could only do it weekends. It cost a lot and Santos and his men were only available one or two days a week. Sometimes it rained. So it was late July before I planted anything.

The first tomato that ripened seemed like a sign. I couldn’t stop smiling. It was yellow and shiny and healthy. But the plant itself died a slow death. There were green and purple beans, and small mahogany sunflowers. A few beets. But none of it thrived the way I had envisioned. Squash grew flowers but no fruit. I uncovered hundreds of potatoes, but few of a decent size. Tree cutting had stopped in June. Leafed-out trees are much harder to control, especially with hundred-foot trunks and weight only on top. We would have to wait until fall.

I had put so much into this small garden, hoping to have something to show for my hard work and passionate involvement. I was desperate to realize my vision, complete a circle. But vegetables need light for six hours a day at a minimum. Again I measured the sunlight. There wasn’t enough. And something in me changed.

I realized we weren’t done, that in order for me to finally realize my dream, twenty years after moving into this house, we would have to go all the way. We would have to be methodical, and follow a plan. Measure twice, cut once, the rule of thumb used by carpenters, took on new meaning. I would have to learn to trust in the process, “set the job up right,” as my brother had been telling me for years. I resolved that I would not buy or plant another thing until I had completely prepared the space. If it took another year, then so be it. I would do it right this time. No plant would sit in its pot, roots cramped, waiting for me to find it a home. First I would build the garden, carefully and with thought, and then I would bring plants into it.

It was a definitive moment. I took all the wasted passion and excitement and put it on a back burner, to simmer gently. And I relaxed. I became serenely aware of the road, knowing I would eventually reach the destination.

Some other funny things happened. My driving slowed. I felt less anxiety about finishing projects. I became more reasonable about my energy and my ability to move things along in my life.

I can’t believe it took me so long to figure this out: it doesn’t take any more time to do something well than it does to move blindly into it, making corrections as you go along. This has become one of the biggest lessons of my adult life.

My mantra has become “Hurry up and wait,” a tongue-in-cheek reminder that I can trust the process if I move carefully and thoughtfully, that I can realize and fully embrace the richness of all that I am passionate about. And in so doing, I am transforming my very self into the person I dream of being.

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3 Comments

  • Brian B.
    Posted April 21, 2013 9:59 pm 0Likes

    Bless you for this beautiful story.

  • Jason Bluhm
    Posted April 24, 2013 4:12 pm 0Likes

    Perfect story for Earth Day and Spring.

  • Lisa
    Posted May 11, 2013 11:09 pm 0Likes

    So beautifully expressed- and true. Doesn’t our passion deserve our “time”, patience and attention to those all-important details? Doing it mindfully, with heart and soul – builds our joy. Perhaps we don’t believe we deserve such joy? This essay calls us to truly slow down and begin, again….

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