My parents were born into large depression-era farm families. Growing a substantial portion of their food was an economic necessity and a way of life. “The garden” was the place where you grew potatoes and tomatoes, corn and beans and squash and a dozen other vegetables. Enough to feed ten people. All winter long. A place of hard work.
When they married and raised their own family, my parents brought that way of life with them, if not the necessity. In my childhood, “the garden” was still the place where hard work was converted into foodstuffs. In early adulthood, I went through a back-to-the-land phase and my own large vegetable gardens.
That phase ended. Lack of need, lack of interest (burnout perhaps?), and a series of houses that lacked adequate space and sunlight left my gardening days behind me.
Enter Nancy. Over the past decade or so, she has put her artist’s eye toward creating places of beauty outside our home. Using largely native plants, tons of native stone, some clever hardscaping, a small pond, and, yes, lots of hard work, she has transformed a blah yard into a garden of beauty. In the process, that word, “garden,” has come to signify for me the ornamental, not the vegetable kind.
Sure, my childhood home had ornamental trees and shrubs. My mother grew flowers. But in “beds.” The word, “garden,” was reserved for food. This shift in what gardening means to me has been subtle and largely unconscious, but nearly total. When I say I am a gardener, I never think of tomatoes, although many of my listeners probably do.
I’ve lately become aware of another subtle shift, this time in my relationship to the act of gardening. “Our” ornamental garden has been, and largely still is, “Nancy’s” garden. Her desire, her vision, her initiative. I was the, mostly willing, assistant—the muscle, her sherpa.
Then, a year ago, shortly after my (second) retirement, I took on the chairmanship of the committee that cares for the Memorial Garden at my church, the place where the ashes of deceased members are buried or scattered. And I took on this role at a time when the need for change had come due. It was time to expand burial space, remove some overgrown trees and shrubs, repair some damage. Unlike “Nancy’s” garden, which is in a maintenance phase with its basic form established, the Memorial Garden is in a process of moderate to major redefinition. And I find myself actively engaged in that definition, in helping to create the vision and carry it out. I have taken ownership of the process of gardening in a way that I still have not done with our garden at home.
When I was a child, I was a garden helper. As a young adult, raising my own cantaloupe and sweet potatoes and peas, I was a gardener. And then I was neither. In middle age, when Nancy began her garden, I reverted to garden helper. Now, I am a gardener again. With that title, I claim, or reclaim, an avocation. But the title goes deeper for me now. I find that in accepting the title, I also accept stewardship of something that is not mine. The plants, the infrastructure, the aesthetic, the soil itself are to be husbanded, cared for, nurtured. And I find that sense of stewardship creeping into my labor in Nancy’s garden as well. I am pulling weeds not for me, not even for Nancy, but for the garden itself. Interesting changes I did not seek and would never have predicted.