Years ago, when my husband Howard and I were first dating, he looked around my Manhattan apartment where I’d wedged assorted shriveled plants and flaccid palms into a corner behind my bicycle. He was quiet. “Do you think you’d be better with kids than a garden?” he asked.
I laughed, but wasn’t so sure. “Of course, I love kids!” If only plants would cry for attention, I’d have a better shot at caring for them.
“In my next life,” I told him, “I’ll be a gardener.”
I did feed and water our two children and it turns out that our son Ian became the gardener in our family. But while our kids were growing up, the last thing I wanted to deal with was an actual garden — one more living thing to take care of. Luckily, friends and neighbors passed on their overflow of bok choy, eggplants, tomatoes and zucchini. I accepted all of it, preferring to cook veggies than grow them. I sautéed the bok choy with black bean sauce, grilled up eggplants and roasted the tomatoes.
When Ian was in ninth grade he wanted to grow vegetables and mentioned raising chickens. Not only didn’t I want a garden, I wanted nothing to do with chickens— a commitment to farming that I could not, and would not, handle. But, in the spirit of being an open-minded mom, I imagined where this potential garden could fit among our long-planned-for landscaped backyard. Where, among the professionally tended lavender, mugo pines and flowering crabapple trees would a 15-year-old’s garden not junk up our lawn?
After negotiating vegetables only, and no chickens, Ian built two 4’x8′ foot garden boxes next to our stone patio.
By eleventh grade, Ian’s garden was a blatant reminder of his impending departure. My anxiety about the stupid garden boxes wasn’t just about being a backyard eyesore — it was more about what they represented. As Ian narrowed down his college list, he and Howard headed back to Home Depot determined to put in two more boxes. For God’s sake, why? Who was going to maintain the boxes when Ian left for college?
Reminders of our kids moving on loomed large and small. Ian was first to go, our daughter Becca would be leaving the following year. The seasons of planting and harvest —the cycle of life—was staring me down. All I could think about were the garden boxes lying fallow. A haunting metaphor for my imminent life?
Throughout his high school years, Ian tried to teach me how to care for his garden. By senior year he was stern. “Look, I won’t be here to take care of the plants so you need to watch what I do.”
“Here’s how you pick basil so it keeps growing new leaves.”
I listened until he handed me a shovel and asked me to turn the compost. Compost? There were bugs in there! I slipped away, but knew he was right. “In my next life,” I told him, “I’ll be a gardener.”
Ian left for college as Becca filled out her college applications. Soon, my nest would be empty of what I could nurture.
When Ian came home after finals, he cleared out the boxes, planted various vegetables, and headed back to Boston to work for the summer, desperately hoping I’d be a responsible steward.
“So how’s the garden doing?” he’d ask me on the phone.
“Great,” I said.
“Do you weed it?”
“Um, no . . .”
“Are the tomatoes holding up in the cages?”
“Sort of . . . ”
“Have you been watering?”
I’d done nothing. By August the heirloom tomatoes were tangled among the cages and weeds, but in spite of the mess , I salvaged enough to make fresh sauce and gazpacho. The basil became batches of fresh pesto. There was something about just-picked vegetables . . . the idea of a backyard garden started to grow on me.
When Becca headed off to college, I continued to ignore the boxes. The overgrown dead plants only reminded me of how life had changed.
Then, at a party last spring, I met a landscaper who’d spent the afternoon gardening; she still had dirt embedded under her fingernails. She looked radiant, and I was envious. “In my next life I’ll be a gardener,” I said, but for the first time, I felt like an idiot. What was I afraid of?
She told me how to clean out and rotate the beds, how to compost and best times to plant. Surely, all of the same tips Ian had tried to teach me. Maybe it was the wine, but I felt inspired. If I wanted fresh summer vegetables, it would clearly be up to me.
The next morning I approached the desiccated plant-filled boxes. I didn’t tell Howard that I was going to take this on; there was a high probability that I’d change my mind and then feel accountable to seeing this project through. I texted Ian in Boston. “Where do I start?”
After a three-hour marathon of digging up three beds, weeding and pulling out the roots, I prayed that my normally fit body would be able to move the next morning. I downed a couple of Advil and sprawled out on the floor. I had one more garden box to clean out, and I was determined to finish.
Ian came home in May and showed me how to space out the tomatoes, put up cages and plant basil, cucumbers and kale. When I opened packets of beet and eggplant seeds, I couldn’t believe how tiny they were. I didn’t trust that such small specks could yield actual plants, so I ignored the spacing directions and liberally sprinkled them around. It couldn’t hurt, right?
A few weeks later, and much to my surprise, the plants were growing and shoots were sprouting from the seeds. Most weekends in June, I weeded. But after a weekend away, I wasn’t in the mood. It was that commitment thing I dreaded. “I need to weed” became my mantra for the summer, but when I finally got around to it, the tomato plants had grown sideways into each other, grass and mint were thriving in all the wrong places and insects had eaten holes through the basil.
I shoved on my garden gloves. “I hate this,” I muttered. But as soon as I dug my hands in the dirt, my resentment faded. I cut pieces of twine and tried to untangle the thicket of tomato plants. Snapping off two fairly large branches, I realized I needed a lighter touch. I tied the branches to the cages, and when I was done, it looked like a jungle attacked by bows. One box was a mystery —unidentifiable stuff was clumped together. Maybe tossing out those seeds hadn’t been the best idea.
Harvest time. I learned that tomato plants start ridiculously small but become prolific. In spite of giving pounds and pounds of tomatoes away, I made fifteen quarts of soup, numerous quarts of sauce and countless tomato salads.
The mystery box bore a snarl of kale, eggplants, tomatoes and beets. I tried to harvest the beets according to what I’d read online: “pick before the leaves reach six inches.” The leaves were over a foot. Tugging gently, I could almost taste plump roasted beets. As I coaxed them out of the ground something was very wrong. . . one final yank. Huh? They were the size of thimbles. Disappointed, I threw them into the compost bin.
So, in my next life . . . wait, this is my next life. And, it turns out, both gardening and my empty nest life have been far more abundant than I’d ever expected. I’ve watched the magic unfold.
This year, will I love to garden? I doubt it. But I wonder, what will I plant? Peas and carrots sound good. Definitely tomatoes, some basil and kale. . . I’ll slog through the weeding, but at least we don’t have chickens —although fresh eggs would be nice.
Photo credit (above): Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources
Debbie Leaman was a former Managing Director at a Manhattan broker/dealer and a financial adviser now turned freelance writer. Her work has appeared in numerous local and national publications including Barron’s, Women’s Adventure Magazine, and Salt Lake Magazine as well as on websites such as eHow.com. She was a finalist in the 2011 [email protected] memoir competition for my piece, “Skiing After Fifty – Downhill with a Touch of Anime.” Her website is DebbieLeaman.com.