I was nineteen, maybe twenty, and setting up house with my boyfriend as I worked my way through school, bartending at night, studying and going to class during the day. We lived in an old farmhouse on a corner. When we looked to the south, we saw the mountains, to the west a pine forest, to the north a dirt road bordered by a field and a forest, and to the east our land—yielding a view of a garage (once a barn) and the grazing land of the sheep farmer next door. We tilled the soil back behind the garage. We didn’t even test it, didn’t need to. In this place, things always grew.
Our plot measured 20 by 50 feet. Maybe we bit off more than we could chew. But I was resolute. I wanted this garden. I would do it all myself if I had to.
We created raised beds because my boyfriend told me they were easier to weed. You just hoe in between the rows, he said. We planted everything we could think of—sunflowers, lettuce, radishes, carrots, dill, beans, squash, and tomatoes.
As the seeds gestated in their tidy beds, I hadn’t realized what I would feel—my heart. The seeds broke apart, reaching tiny fingers through the soil, hungry for light and moisture. These babies grew and, despite the weather, the black flies, and the mosquitoes, I worked in the garden every day, tending, weeding, watering, picking, plucking. As the plants grew, I realized that I could sustain life.
After years of city living and tainted soil, my mind was shut off to the needs of living things, my heart incapable of fostering growth. And then it all began again. My second garden presented itself to me. Out on an island of light, four raised beds were offered to me—to plant, to tend.
So, in early April I pulled out the wasted sacks of the previous year’s tomatoes and turned the earth, massaged it, fed it. I worked my hands through it until I knew it completely. And then the plants and seeds went in the soil. With that light and air, they grew.
And I began to love other plants. Herbs and their uses. Lavender and its perfect jab of scent. Lemon thyme to rub my hands over. Rosemary to season my chicken. Basil for tomatoes and pesto. Cilantro for salads. They all showed themselves to me and asked that I love them, so I did. Then the flowers begged attention. The lilies of the valley, so sweet in their perfect clothes. The poppies, leggy and brilliant. And the columbine, brief and unspoiled. They grew all around me, and when they left, I waited for them to return.
Here and now, a new problem arises: how to make things grow with a lack of light. Do you open up and cut down to bring in light? Or do you seek those plants that thrive under such conditions, those native to the dark?
I ask myself: How do parents do it? Do they carve out a spot for their children even though they might not fit there, or do they find that place where their children are most comfortable and let them live there?
The answer is easy.
Here, in this shade, we choose plants that work. The broad-leafed hosta is comfortable in the shade and in the earth made acid by pine needles. The ferns unfurl easily and with abandon, not at all shy. Pachysandra plants hover around the edges, curling away from spots of light. Myrtle creeps through the tree roots.
And everywhere the trees emerge. Here I let them grow. Tend to their needs. Protect them.
This is my garden now.