Written by Jessica Tunis
I came home late from working at the store today; it was already dark when I got in, and the night was gentle and cool. I didn’t go in right away, though I was ready for dinner and a shower. I walked instead through the garden, the mulched paths soft underfoot, sensing the moisture of well-watered soil, and the dim shapes of familiar plants defined against the pale straw mulch. In the new moon evening, the pea flowers gleamed whitely at the top of their stems, and the densely planted patch of Russian kale foliage looked so elegant, all silver and ferny in the moonlight. Even the mismatched assortment of trellis and bean sticks and tomato cages looked beautiful in that half-darkness. I didn’t need to harvest anything, and there was no real reason to drift once more through the garden before the nighttime rituals. No real reason but love.
I wish for everyone the kind of love that I feel for my garden. I don’t go a day without telling her that I love her, and I often kiss a stray leaf or flower that might chance to brush my face. I feel that this relationship is entirely mutual; I feel loved in return, provided for, even appreciated. I am proud of my garden, and she is generous with me, despite poor soil and a tall hill of redwoods that blocks the last few hours of sun. The garden encourages sharing with easy generosity; abundance as a mindset, and a full harvest basket. But our relationship is not all walks in the moonlight and tender kisses. There’s sweat in that garden, and blood from torn knuckles, and stiff back muscles, and most recently a bruised shin from where the wheelbarrow fell over onto it while full of compost. I’ve shed tears in that garden, flung myself on her earth over and over, worked out my sorrows and frustrations with a ruthless weeding. I like to take my morning coffee out and sit in the garden whenever I can, just smelling the day and listening to the birds begin their racket. And I like to end the day in the garden, that little walk before bed, as though like a child I require reassurance that she will still be there when I get up in the morning. We have a relationship, is what I’m saying.
Gardening is about relationships; between garden and gardener, yes, but also the relationships between plants and plant families, the way that different species interact with each other, and with soil and compost and water. It’s a web of connected relationships, not all of them moon-kissed and dewy; migratory birds are deadly to young seedlings, and woodrats once ate Every. Single. Zucchini that I planted, one hot, dry summer. There are gophers to contend with, and weeds, and wire-worms, and sowbugs and banana slugs and spider mites and aphids and plagues of grasshoppers. There are chance seedlings that might be a prized heirloom or a waste of space. There’s friendly fire, too; the native clarkia wildflowers that I planted on the steep slope above the garden all flung seed down into the flat, rich soil where I like to grow peppers; I had several lovely Jimmy Nardello plants last year that never got as big as they should have because they were half-buried in a mass of blooming clarkia that I had no heart to pull out. This year I got wise, though, and dug up all the little clarkia seedlings when they were small enough to transplant, and moved them somewhere less troublesome. A garden, like a relationship, is a work in process, and not a fixed destination.
So everyone’s a gardener now. The amount of seeds and starts flying out of the store is mind-boggling. But it makes sense. Some gardens are being built as a way to make use of so much time at home, and others are rooted in reaction to worries about food security. Others, like my own, have been there for years, but this time at home has enabled me to expand and invest labor that I might otherwise have spent working outside the home; I’ve added at least a third of newly usable space to the vegetable garden this year. We see so many people taking solace in the act of gardening right now, and it warms our collective heart. Gardening is a connection, to the natural resources of soil and water, and to the great and tiny cycles of life that are spinning all around us. We are all about it.
But gardening can also be mystifying, frustrating, confusing, or overwhelming. It is a learned skill, and new successes and failures, weather and pest pressures make every year different from the next. If you haven’t spent your years digging in the soil and tending lettuce in a balmy spring heatwave, the learning curve may feel steep and sharp. While success is always more fun than failure, there is a lot to be learned from flailing around and trying new things. Gardening, more than anything else, is about paying attention. It is about observation before action. I would even call it a kind of listening, though I do not mean listening that we do with the ears. But plants are communicating all the time. We may not know all of the information that is passed from root-tip to mycelium beneath the soil, but we can see the plant on the surface, and interpret a lot of what it needs from that. If you see your plants wilting, you should know that wilt causes stress to the plant. Every time a plant wilts, it is damaged and has to recover from the wilt. But you can’t water in the blazing heat of midday, because the water will burn the leaves like tiny magnifying glasses in the sun. So how to keep moisture in? Well, mulch is a tremendous help. Whether it is a mulch of wood chips or rice hulls, or straw or even pulled weeds, a layer of protection between earth and sun will help keep the plants from wilting. And compost added to the soil will help it retain water like a sponge so that the roots can access it even in the heat of midday. Even the simple act of watering, when we pay attention, leads us from plant leaves to sun to mulch and to soil.
Why didn’t the squash seeds come up? Are the seeds still there? Dig down and look for one. You might find a gopher tunnel that traces the line of careful seeding, or notice a flock of beautiful spotted towhees that hop through the garden every morning. It’s OK not to know all of this right away. Even lifelong gardeners get flummoxed sometimes, or forget that we knew something! But at every stage in your gardeners' existence, paying attention to cause and effect will serve you better than a dozen gardening books. What we love, we understand, we grow to share its nature.
So here is a love note to my garden, my dear friend and provider, who challenges and delights me in every season. And here is one for all the gardeners out there, the new ones and the ones with callouses from all the pruning. Keep growing! Keep trying new things. Learn what you love, and what grows well in your care. Share the bounty, watch the seasons. The garden will give back to you whatever you put in it, and more.