"...I see trees of green,
red roses too
I see them bloom,
for me and you
And I think to myself,
what a wonderful world..."
This performance of "What a Wonderful World" by k.d.lang and Tony Bennett is so beautiful, that the dogwoods weep in pink blossoms, and the hyacinths drip deep purple tears along the garden path whenver it plays. And besides all that, it was the song I heard in my heart tonight, when a gardening memory poked through my prayers like crocuses in March. So here goes...
It was my first real garden...and I'd imagined it for more than a dozen years. All I needed was my own little acre, and now I had it. Okay, so it wasn't an acre, but it was ours. Well, that wasn't true either. It became ours, but at the time of this story, we were "leasing, with an option to buy." But I didn't care. I had enough hope to "build a dream on," and enough dreams to plant a garden...or two, or three...in. Okay, so I planted gardens in every spot I could imagine bursting with vegetables, flowers, herbs, and fruit.
The first year we "cleared the land," carved out some space for a lawn, an ambitious vegetable garden...marked out with a low picket fence for stepping over, beds for lavender, sage, lamb's ear, and rosemary, a kitchen garden off the back porch, a well-drained rise from the sidewalk to the butter yellow picket fence for the palest pink trailing "Baby Blanket" rose bushes, an arbor gate with jasmine climbing from tubs on either side, morning glories wrapping their fingers around cotton twining at the far end of the front porch, and a white "evening" garden in the back by the lilac bushes. And we were patient. I knew that the first year my perennials would not have "taken" and that I was reclaiming the soil...but year two...sigh. All through the not-so-lush-and-gorgeous first summer, I dreamed of year two.
Year one, we harvested a meager crop of tomatoes, peppers, corn, and squash. And even though our haul was less than bountiful, I was grateful for so much. I'd felt "one with the earth and the sky, one with everything in life," as I planted marigolds between rows of cucumbers, for detracting insects, and loved me the scent of the sweet peas climbing up, and over, the trellis just this side of the tall sunflowers by the fence. At summer's end, I composted, turned the soil, cleaned out beds for winter and lay straw over the late fall harvest to protect squash and potatoes from an early Colorado snow storm. And dreamed of the next summer when we'd be on our way to an "established garden," to borrow a phrase from red-suspendered Roger Swain of PBS's The Victory Garden...which, along with Julia Child's The French Chef, were my favorite shows...thank you WGBH - Boston.
When year two arrived I was chomping at the bit like a race horse. Bulbs popped through the black soil, blossomed into pink and white tulips, deep purple grape hyacinth, and daffodils, faded, leaves folded to send nutrients back into the bulb, while I waited for the real deal. Summer's bounty.
I planted annuals...pansies, geraniums, petunias, I sowed seed...and seedlings I'd grown from seed...within the pickets of the vegetable garden, and I doted over perennial beds like a mother fluffing her child's pillows.
Before long I had...not much. I didn't understand it. It didn't look beautiful colorful, lush and tranquil. So I bought more plants. Planted them and stepped back, but I was still disappointed after two weeks. I thought it would have filled in, filled out, become my version of "The Secret Garden"...but no. So I bought more plants...and more...and more...I planted, watered, deadheaded, and fertilized. Nope, still not my dream garden.
I'd about given up on having a beautiful garden, when one morning after making my tea and taking it out to the back stoop, hoping to enjoy the serenity of dawn. As I sat there, I noticed something red through the leafy green of the vegetable garden and wondered if we finally had a tomato worth harvesting. I went over to investigate and as I stepped over the low picket fence and got down on my haunches in one of the rows, I saw a few tall weeds that needed pulling.
Hours and hours later I was still there. White cotton nightgown soiled with mud and sweat and tomato seeds. Hair mussed, face streaked with dirt, trails of perspiration making primitive designs along my jawline. I'd moved from the vegetable garden to the white garden, to the lavender, the herbs, the roses, the large barrels of pale pink geraniums and white jasmine, the beds around the front porch and finally the kitchen garden. I'd spent hours loosening surrounding soil, then gently, but firmly, pulling weeds, thinning excess plantings, trimming stray sucker vines, and I was done. I stood, rubbed my sore back, went to the back shed for the wheel barrow to gather my clippings and weeds for the composting pile, sorted good plants for regifting to neighbors, and once I was done, headed into the house for a long hot bath.
Bath taken, I headed out the front door, car keys in hand and an errand on my mind, out the front gate and into the car. Errand accomplished I was back long before dusk. Parking the car at the curb...as I'd done hundreds of times before, I climbed out of the driver's side, took my marketing out of the trunk, crossed the sidewalk, and started up the steps to our arbor gate. As I unlatched the gate and stepped through the arbor, I gasped. My sweet, little butter yellow house with the periwinkle front door and the soft green steps and shutters was surrounded by the most beautiful, lush, colorful, gardens. Every flower, every tomato, every bright yellow pepper, spike of lavender, pale pink rosebud was framed in the perfect amount of green...spring green, deep green, grass green, forest green.
I circled the house and stepped gently through the now clearly delineated rows of beans, tomatoes, peppers, sweet peas, and squash vines. I gingerly navigated strawberries and marigolds, tiptoeing over pumpkin blossoms and tiny green beans. I stood beneath sunflowers and hollyhocks, and watched bumble bees fly lazily from deep-throated foxglove, to rest on cabbage-headed hydrangea blossoms.
It was the same in every bed, and under every tree...along the porch lattice and beside the back door....beauty, form, outline, color.
All summer long I had been thinking that my gardens needed more plants, more, more, more. When what it needed was less.
And most of what I had taken out were good plants. Yes, there were weeds, but often there were also four perfectly good plants, where there should have been only one. They were just crowded...vying for resources and attention. There were tall showy plants in front of shorter plants that needed the sunlight. Plants that boasted more subtle flowers had been hidden behind diva-like large-leafed varieties. There were bushy, leggy, overgrown plants that had shrouded their own, lower hanging fruit, preventing it from ripening in the sun. And in a tangle of overplanting and rampant growth, it was hard to tell just when it would be exactly the right moment to harvest the fruit, flowers, or vegetables, for optimum color, flavor, beauty.
There were soooo many lessons learned that day in the garden...in my nightgown. And these garden lessons, still surface in my life, in some way, almost every day. While this mental picture of a well-tended and carefully weeded garden, sets the model for my prayers, more often than not.
So tonight, as I felt the warm, wet air of early spring gather on my cheeks, I couldn't help but think of the way black soil feels packed under my fingernails. The smell of loamy earth, the overwhelming sense of mothering I feel, when I am loosening the roots of a new seedling, just before planting it. And then there's the sweet sound of growing...yes, I do believe one can hear a plant grow, and stretch, and sigh. Like a prayer unfolding in the deep rich sanctuary of Love.
I often go back to that day of weeding, and thinning, as an unsought, but highly valued, spiritual workshop in tending the garden of my thinking. Less is more. Order is beautiful, and there is nothing more lovely than a simple truth...well-framed in the spring-green freshness of a moment's awakening, watered by a random act of genuine kindness, and warmed in the sacred space of a child's prayer of gratitude.
"A grateful heart a garden is,
Where there is always room
For every lovely, Godlike grace
To come to perfect bloom..."
- E.W. Dennis
In your silent garden may you eat sun-drenched tomatoes, wiggle your toes in black dirt, and find raspberry seeds on your nightgown.
Kate Robertson, CS
A friend suggested that I share this link to"I had a garden once..." a post I wrote two summers ago, which includes a poem about this very garden, and a link to Anne Murray's beautiful "I Went to the Garden to Pray" (once you are in the post, the link to the song is in the title at the end of the lyrics).