by Sarah West
Now is the time of reckoning in the garden: the time of tomatoes that will or will not develop blossom end rot, the time of aphids and cucumber beetles and cabbage worms, the time of weed seeds in full sprint, of peppers bruised with sunscald. Our gardens are extensions of our selves and we feel compelled to guard them, scrambling as we do to ward off the hazards of their biology. When so much can go wrong, it’s easy to overlook all that has gone right.
Namely, that our gardens have never failed us, even when they have failed—when the beets never turned into beets, when the spinach bolted too soon, when the pea seeds rotted in the ground. These too were gifts, the garden’s generous spirit in action. We don’t often think of failure as a boon, but it nevertheless gives you something: the nudge to inquire more deeply, to seek out truer nuance.
While we gorge ourselves on the many ideal vegetables our gardens will henceforth be pumping out, turn an eye to a tattered brown leaf, a bolted something, a patch of weeds gone out of control. The garden is no place for perfection. Trust that perfection will arrive each year in moments of delight, surrounded by a swirl of verdant chaos. Eat the funky vegetables: the carrots with five legs, the two cucumbers grown as one, the worm-eaten kale. Practice acceptance.
Plants let go far beyond the usual harvest stage can reveal new elements of their flavor: bright green cilantro seedpods, while they are still soft, taste like herbal lime peel; arugula flowers surprise with sweetness and a punch of spice; the core of a bolted leek softens over heat like onion-flavored asparagus. If we keep looking, we will keep discovering.
I often find myself muttering excuses for the state of my garden—reasons why the weeding has been ignored too long, why something was planted too late or too early, why I have no luck growing this or that. My garden should own up to its personality, too: today it is gregarious with weeds, tomorrow sedate and heavy with fruit. And when a disease or pest overwhelms a crop, I do better as the deft surgeon cutting out infection than a victim faced with the removal of her own leg. In a garden, we cultivate more than just vegetables; judging our performance by the perfection of our produce ignores more lasting achievements.
For, failure itself is a form of generosity: the giving away of an expected outcome. Failure brings us to a place where we find out what happens next, where we can peak into fresh possibility. What makes us hesitate in the face of failure or generosity is the fear of coming up short. But anyone who gives freely knows that an act of giving is always followed by a wake of abundance. It is a space that, once opened, never empties, such as the space a cup makes when it scoops water from a lake.
The heart of abundance is trust. When the peas shrivel in the scorching sun, there will be cucumbers. When the cucumbers start to taste bland, scores of tomatoes will already be dangling from their vines. When the tomatoes blacken from blight or frost, there will be frost-kissed greens. When the greens slow to a halt in the short days of winter, there will be root vegetables, sugary warehouses of rich, warming flavor. And when their sugar turns cloying, there will be spring greens, bitter and sweet in their tonic. To control a garden is to lose sight of its essence. Trust what it gives you and ask for more. The garden comes back and we come back, and that is a whole other dance.