Gardens, Unrealities

by Sarah West

When we cultivate a patch of earth and sow the seeds of a garden, we feel a sense of control. To mold the soil and lay our best intentions on it is both a leap of faith and a prophetic act. We imagine what the garden will produce, how our kitchens will dance with its bounty. We dream of success and fear failure. We expect.

To a new gardener, success seems mainly a product of cleverness. In search of a magazine-cover style payoff, new gardeners I work with are eager to know my best garden secrets: sound bites to hurtle them on to vegetable glory. I remember this impulse from my own first attempts at growing vegetables. I felt like I just needed to sniff out the best amendments, the best tools, and, most importantly, the best techniques to accomplish the garden I dreamed of.

What I have learned through many successes and failures is that a garden is too complex a system to have a singularly ‘best’ way. Certainly there are good ways, even reliable ways, but nothing wears the crown of being right every time. I tell my new gardeners, to their consternation, that there are many ways to garden well. That gardening is less a system of rules than one of observation and experimentation. Over time, the garden teaches you much of what you need to know.

New and seasoned gardeners alike mark the seasonal cycles of the garden with expectation. In late winter, we gather seeds and make plans. Every year there are new varieties to try, something alluring in the catalog, something spotted at the farmers’ market or tasted at a local restaurant. In the spring and early summer, we busily sow and plant. Unsure of what sort of summer we’ll have, we err on the side of abundance, cramming in a few more here or there as insurance. Through early summer, we watch and dote, primping the garden, gazing at it longingly. Soon, we celebrate the first stir-fry of peas, the first homegrown salad, the first buttery zucchini or silky green bean, and we nearly drown in ecstasy when we taste the first tomato slice. The garden, bug-chewed holes and all, feels like a richly flavored paradise.

But a few weeks into harvest, it’s green beans every night, tomatoes heaped and near rotting on the counter, bolting lettuce: the garden, we learn, has its own timing. By early fall it is bombarding us with bounty, unsympathetic to our other obligations or schedule. The excitement of preservation turns to desperation, anxious attempts to prevent spoilage. (My new favorite desperation preservation technique is to freeze tomatoes whole. Just rinse and dry, throw them in a freezer bag and call it a day. Defrost as needed; the skin slips off and their meat awaits your culinary whims, nearly as perky and flavorful as a fresh tomato.)

In fall, the roles reverse. We are controlled by the garden and technique becomes just staying in the game. This time of year, most gardens start to go wild: weeds fill in the spaces, tomatoes sprawl and bow against the weight of their fruit, broccoli heads stretch into bouquets of yellow flowers. This, too, is a garden, and likely a productive one, but it is not the one we imagined or aspired to. We accept it out of exhaustion or waning interest.

This is perhaps the most authentic garden, the one that slips out of our control. Its aliveness is electric. Rather than try to shape or tame it, we begin to move with it. Our expectations yield to actuality. Rotting leaves are no longer disastrous but inevitable, tomatoes surprise us by ripening in the rain, beans march on, whether we pick them or not, until the weather turns too cold. We get what we can and forgo the rest. The kingdom of our garden becomes a wilderness and we the forager.

As our gardens slip and the dreams we planted in spring vanish beneath the weeds, we can either resist or accept them. There is joy in their sprawl and compassion in their abundance. Their timing is awkward and presses upon our lives. Saving the produce is an effort. But when we turn the corner, empty the counter and fill the last jars of tomato sauce, we sigh a deep sigh and thank the garden for its lessons.

(Originally published in the Hillsdale Farmers’ Market newsletter, The Grapevine, October 18, 2012)

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