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Faith in Vermont: Lessons from the Garden

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Posted on May 19, 2015 | Blog Category:
By Faith Gong



The older I get, the more I love gardening.

I have commented previously in this column about my ambivalence towards gardening -- the result of a childhood spent watching my parents slave away each weekend in their garden -- and the unfavorable gardening conditions in my own rock-infested, tree-shaded yard. One could quite rightly characterize my current relationship with my garden as "rocky."

But perhaps in the same way that women are said to always come to resemble their mothers, I find that my gardening behavior is increasingly coming to resemble that of my parents. I attribute most of this change to age; while young gardeners do exist, I consider them a special breed, prodigies, the Mozarts of the soil. For the rest of us, it takes age to teach us the particular blend of passion and patience required for gardening.

The need for patience is obvious: there are few immediate rewards in gardening. Plant a seed, water it, and wait: It will be weeks to months before you see any reward for your toils. This is particularly true in colder climates, like Vermont, where the growing season is approximately three months long. That's a long time to wait for your garden to grow.

The gardener's passion is more mysterious, and stands in tension to patience. The best way I can think to describe it is in terms of our primal urge to create something beautiful, something of which we can be proud, like a child who puts crayons to paper and then proclaims, "Look what I made!" Few things in adult life satisfy this urge: money and material possessions are ultimately meaningless, work is often frustrating and exhausting, relationships and children take years to mature. But with some of the aforementioned patience, plus a little water, soil, and weeding, a garden can become beautiful, and it will remain beautiful year after year (provided you plant perennials.) A garden can feed your soul as well as your body.

Something shifted in me this spring: My passion and patience have coalesced at last, and I am taking a great deal of pleasure in gardening, even under the challenging circumstances imposed by our yard.

As I've logged in hour after hour in my gardens, I've discovered another attraction of gardening. I'll call it "awe." I'm hard pressed to think of any place with a higher concentration of miracles than a garden bed.

Of course, there are everyday miracles to be witnessed anytime one cares for a living thing, be it a human baby, animal, or plant. I care for all three, but I find that plants differ significantly from other living things. Babies and animals teach us humbling lessons about ourselves: they reflect back to us our own potential for selfishness, greed, brutality, and they require us to sacrifice those same things in their service. Think of a toddler having a temper tantrum, or chickens reinforcing pecking order; both are miniature versions of our own animal instincts.

But plants don't have personalities. They don't form relationships. Plants have only one purpose: they are designed to grow.

Animals show us ourselves; plants show us something more spiritual. Plants demonstrate that things can -- and will -- survive in the most adverse circumstances, and that what looks like death may in fact be the first step towards new life.

I could give countless examples of this, but I'm just going to write about my hosta.

It's taken me a few years to appreciate hostas. These herbaceous perennials do quite well in my yard -- I believe they do quite well almost anywhere. But they're not particularly delicate or beautiful: Hostas start as a bushy clump of thick, ridged, ovate leaves, and then shoot up tough stalks of waxy, trumpet-shaped flowers. They're workhorse plants.

For that reason, I decided to plant a hosta in a patch of bare ground in our yard where I hadn't succeeded in growing anything else. I put it in the ground in September. One week later, I noticed that our dog had uprooted it, so I re-planted it.

Sometime in early November, after an extended absence from our yard, I saw that our dog had uprooted the hosta again. By the time I noticed it, however, the plant had obviously been lying aboveground for a long time: the whole thing looked withered and brown and dead. I didn't throw it away, but neither did I bother to re-plant it; instead, I left it where it had fallen. All winter long it lay covered by several feet of snow and ice.

When spring came and I ventured out into the yard again, I picked up that shriveled hosta to dispose of it. I figured I'd try another hosta in its place, this time doing a better job of keeping an eye on it and the dog. But when I picked it up, the brown leaves fell open to display several tiny green shoots poking up from the roots. That hosta was ALIVE! It had somehow survived months of laying atop the frozen ground, under the snow.

I have replanted it, and it continues to thrive (undisturbed, for the moment, by the dog.)

Nobody will convince me that this was not a miracle. Where could I have found a better object lesson on the importance of never giving up on something? How could I not love gardening after this?

 

Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit manager. Since moving to Addison County in 2011, her work has involved caring for a house in the woods, four young daughters, one anxiety-prone labradoodle — and writing for her blog, The Pickle Patch.

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