A PLACE in mind
By Martha Leb Molnar
My garden is like my hair.
Right after washing, it’s straight and neat. I can pretend,
despite a lifetime of experience to the contrary, that it will
remain just so when it dries. But encouraged by the moist air,
within minutes, it forms frizzy curls in all the wrong places.
Similarly, despite painstaking planning, disciplined cultivation, and everlasting hope, my garden never measures up to the
ideal that seems within reach each spring.
My current garden of vegetables and perennial flowers is on
a Vermont hilltop where the sun pours unimpeded over every
inch of soil. “Anything could grow here,” I thought when we first
saw the land.
The first summer, I wandered around the fields, searching
for the perfect spot. In the fall, my husband Ted and I marked
off a large area visible from many windows. Hauling carfuls of
empty boxes, we covered the earth with cardboard then piled on
a thick layer of woodchips. Whatever grew underneath would
die, giving us clean soil for planting.
But peeking underneath the cardboard in early spring, I saw
the whole of creation thriving in the damp soil. The grass and
Queen Anne’s lace, the blackberries and clover were pushing up
powerful, iridescent shoots. Far from defeated, the weeds were
readying for when the cover turned to rich compost.
Understanding their tactics, we removed the cardboard, and
I spent that first spring in relentless weeding, yanking out roots
that reached to the bedrock and into neighboring states. Spring
passed with no planting. Summer came, and I spent it vigilantly
destroying the recurring pockets of weedy troops while also
amending the soil.
The following spring, I strung string between stakes and
dropped the vegetable seeds in straight rows. Planted the
thin shrubs deeply, dug in the flower bulbs, tubers, and roots.
Watered, mulched, and watered; weeded ruthlessly.
The garden thrived in the filled spots and glared accusingly
in the empty ones.
The following April, I stood in the gathering warmth
surveying the winter-killed hibiscus, the grass pulsating with
green life, the daffodils casting yellow shards. By June, planting
was complete. In July, the flowers looked tall, self-confident. The
vegetables were spilling over the sides, the tomatoes’ pale skins
stretched over juicy flesh; the beans hanging in purple streamers;
the pumpkins rampant. By August, all I could do was watch
the future unfold. The cucumbers’ ends rotted away and they
perished. The skin on the most brilliant tomatoes burst without
warning. The wind tore the blushing petals off the lilies.
I mourned each death. Then, within a day or a week, I accepted
each loss. Because I’m able to impose only so much order on
only so much soil. Weeding and enriching, dropping seeds and
planting roots are, in the end, compromised attempts. Yes, I reap
food and beauty. But my control ends where the ancient soil, the
violent winds, the pounding rain, the withering sun take over.
Fortunately, those forces temper the disappointments with their
own abundance. The wild sea of grass holds, after all, as much
beauty as the lilacs and lupines I cultivate with much effort.
So why garden?
For food and beauty. And because the effort is its own
reward. Because of some mule-headed stoicism, I like physical
labor. I enjoy the feel of spent muscles, the thirst of throat and
skin. Tired, I stop often to focus, slowly, on the near and the
distant. On the swallows darting on the lawn, the craggy peak
beyond the lake. The work imposes its measured rhythm on my
impatient self, forcing me to look and listen.
Digging in the soil, I lose my repugnance towards earthworms as big as young snakes, iridescent beetles, and all manner
of creepy-crawly life. This ground is common ground, host
to multitudes. The soil between my fingers is swarming with
feeding, breeding, dying, and the creation of life from death. In
fact, we owe our life on earth to these lowly forms. I think of this
as I reach deep to position a tomato plant.
In the end, I am left trusting that the sweat and empathy will
trigger the alchemy between plant and soil and sun and that the
surrounding wildness will allow me small victories.
Jean Giono writes in The Man Who Planted Trees that of the
100,000 trees his hero had planted, 20,000 sprouted. Of these,
he expected to lose about half to rodents and the weather. There
remained 10,000 oak trees to grow where none had grown
Not a bad return on investment, and an invaluable lesson in
Martha Leb Molnar is the author of Taproot: Coming Home to Prairie Hill, and a
commentator for Vermont Public Radio. She lives in Castleton.