For years, I fiddled around rented properties, first planting parsley and tomatoes in earth boxes on the patio, later banana trees and okra in a yard. Limited by landlords’ restrictions, I dreamed of owning a home with a garden to do with as I pleased. So, two springs ago, I bought a house on a ¼ acre suburban lot. Little did I know, I’d now be beholden to Mother Nature who offers humbling life lessons.
For the first year, I experimented, planting vegetables and herbs along the patio, noting the the sun’s passage over the land through the seasons, watching water pool first under the back oaks then midway across the yard after heavy summer rains. Come winter, familiar with the place’s patterns, my friend, Peter, and I pulled up the grass, cut back trees, wove branches into berms, and layered soil and mulch. In three concentric half circle mounds, we nestled fruit trees, vegetables, herbs and flowers.
“You don’t see straight lines in nature,” Pete wiped his brow as his wheelbarrow streamed moist mulch onto the arcing path. “Curves allow energy to flow. Raised beds absorb cosmic forces that enliven soil.”
“Besides, they’re beautiful,” I replied, peering around, my rake upright beside a pile of cedar chips.
“Yep,” he agreed, “People are drawn to them. Folks feel more alive walking through. You’re gonna find your energy shifting.”
I smiled and wondered what that might mean.
Two summers later, sweet potatoes press and worms wiggle through earthen beds. Burgundy figs grow plump beneath sturdy leaves. Green papayas bunch under umbrella-like ones. Blue-green bamboo tower over the northern fence. And I, their understudy, sit shaded from the sun’s searing rays.
I’m a seedling and student of my garden.
Yesterday evening, strolling through by waning light, I grimace at mimosa weeds invading the back mound. “Those need pulling.” Pushing aside my Clementine’s overgrown branches, I see brittle Lima bean tendrils wrapped around trellises. “They need to be cut.“ As darkness descends, I step inside and lie to sleep, but my body stiffens as my thoughts course through lists of tasks – mulch the okra, seed tomatoes, clear the gutters. In dread, I fret, until deep into the night I drift off.
It’s easy to get lost in what’s needs tending.
Come daylight, I rise, wearily dress and step out into burgeoning light. I circle through my garden and decide I’ll prune the orange tree to clear the pathway, cover the down shoot to the rain barrels to keep pine needles out and pull weeds by the back fence before they flower and reseed. But I’m troubled. “How will I get on top of this?” Summer’s recurring rains and lingering light have left Bleeding Heart overriding the fence again and Bahia grass calf high. Things look terrible.
With clippers in hand, I set out, cutting back thorny citrus and attaching screen to gutters. I then kneel beneath papaya, and tug at Bahia grass. A gray robin hops on the mound to my left and chews squash greens. “That’s whose been eating my leaves,” I gasp, pressing a string of green into a bag. An okra’s yellow and purple flower catches my eye. I limply smile in reply and continue to unearth a strand of Dollar Weed. For an hour and a half, I pull out trespassers, clearing a patch in the thicket. Carrying my last bag of weeds to the side of the house to dry, I see the shed’s rusting. I sigh and trudge forth. Suddenly, a soft breeze lifts, banana leaves rustle and a budding pineapple comes to sight. “Oh my God!” I lighten. As I walk over to admire it, wafts of spearmint swirl through my breath. Grinning, I realize, there’s more here than I’ve noticed.
Gifts and grievances abide side by side. Rarely are both acknowledged.
Heartened, I step from the glaring heat to the dim cool of my kitchen. Dripping, I look back over the weeds, cleared patch and the baby pineapple. It’s not all bad.
That evening, my neighbor, Kim, comes across the street to gather greens. I let her in the front door. As we walk through the living room and kitchen, my chest tenses at the thought of her seeing the weeds. She steps out on the back patio, inhales and gazes. I follow, noting collards browning and daisy-like flowers overtaking the back circle. Kim dreamily moseys about. She bends, picks Malabar spinach, looks up, and says,“What I love about your garden is that everything’s happening at once. Some things are dying, others are growing. It feels so alive.”
“It doesn’t look awful with all the weeds and dead leaves?” I gasp, my heart jumping at the thought that everything’s okay, after hours of seemingly fruitless work.
“Nooo!” she says. “There’s so much here. Besides, it’s summer in Florida. Everyone has weeds; I can hardly keep up with mine.”
Amazed at her understanding, I broaden my perspective.
We can focus on one step and neglect the dance.
The following week, while leaving a mending party at my home, my friend, Heather, says, “I love your garden. I want to come help.”
“Oh, please do!” I smile. Now, Friday mornings, she and I pull weeds and chat amid sun baked skies, blossoming guava, scampering squirrels and my grateful heart.
Week by week, Heather and I make our way around the yard. I observe the daisy-like plants settling in the far circle by the bananas. Hearing bananas like to be fed, I let the weeds grow as banana food. When they are knee high, I start to pull, cut and place pieces around banana bark, pleased to be recycling. But, days later, to my despair, the cuttings root – the possibility hadn’t occurred to me! Disheartened, I gather and throw the seedlings out. Come Friday, Heather and I continue to clear the weed patch. To our delight, a lovely ground cover has developed below. I’d planned on keeping the area mulched, but we agree the growth is magical and soft to walk on, so it stays.
Unanticipated gifts abound.
Yet, I wonder about weeds. My friend Pete’s Hawaiian kahuna says plants growing near you are your medicine: there to teach and heal you. Rather than mindlessly throwing them out or to the compost, I want to learn what they offer.
So I bring a list of weeds to an edible weed walk at Sarasota’s Eat Local Week to discover the daisy like plants in the banana circle are Spanish Needles – great in stir fries. And as a tea, they’ll cure my dry cough. And, the ground cover overtaking my paths is Blue Day Flower – an antimicrobial. I’m glad I asked.
Through observation and inquiry, we come to understandings.
Yet I realize, not all weeds, nor critters, are welcome. Red bugs shriveling my cherry tomatoes have taught me gardening requires more than nurturing. It entails deterrence. My girlhood upbringing didn’t train me in defense, but critters and weeds with their own agendas popping up in barren spots impels me to not only plant what I want, but dispel what I don’t. Biodynamic farming instructs burning pests and weed seeds and spreading the ashes over several years to prevent growth. So, I’m collecting Bahia grass and mimosa seeds to give it a try.
Ebb and Flow,
To and Fro,
Both ways make a garden grow
After pulling up the last of the weeds in the banana circle, leaving the lovely ground cover to flourish, I realize I’ve completed my task of clearing through summer’s spread. Silently, I walk the yard, savoring the stillness of everything’s being ‘just right’. I then step inside and notice on the calendar it’s the fall equinox. Interesting. After summer’s mayhem, my garden and I have settled to a new order.
Through incomprehensible chaos, life evolves.
I turn on the radio and listen as I wash my oatmeal bowl, tea cup and pot – news of fighting in Syria, word of a peace treaty in Sudan. I think of my garden – a trouble here, a solution there. From where did each arise? Into what will each evolve? And what’s my part in this unfolding landscape?
I know better than to grasp one piece thinking it’s the whole and entangle myself in it. Or to imagine I know what’s coming, or what’s really going on. Instead, I’m learning to trust, look, listen and do what needs doing next.