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Successes and Failures: The Life of a Gardener

Assorted Vegatables

Recently, I had a friend over for brunch for some signature, made-from-scratch blueberry pancakes. This friend is an avid gardener with an incredibly gorgeous botanical home-sanctuary, so as we dove into a stack of buttermilk bliss, naturally, my first question was, “how is your garden doing?” 

I expected a recount how many pounds of produce she was hauling or how many rare butterflies were spotted this season. But her response was simply a chuckle, and “Oh, it’s a mess.” 

At that moment I could feel some small inner part of myself -- the part that tries too hard or compares myself or is a perfectionist -- take a proverbial sigh of relief and cast a laugh of self-recognition and being seen; my garden has become a bit of a mess as well! With two heat waves, marauding weeds, and critters as intent on eating my provisions as I am, things have drifted far from my Spring plans. 

Yet, after this confessional, this disclosure of horticultural imperfection, as we progressed in syrupy chomps and crumb-wiping from corners of mouths, a new thing emerged...

“Well, what IS doing well in your garden?”

At that point, my friend’s eyes opened wide in gleeful realization, as she said she’d nearly forgotten to give me something she’d brought for me. Out of a reused white paper boutique bag, she gingerly unsheathed two gifts: a bottle of homemade spiced elderberry syrup, and a bag of impossibly ruby-red frozen strawberries, dated May ‘19. 

elderberry syrup

My heart smiled as I asked if I could take a swig of the syrup, and set the strawberries out to thaw in a white porcelain bowl 

As the purple elixir went down, slow, cinnamony and sweet, I was reminded all over again how nature always provides us with such sustenance and medicine, if we just know where to look, and focus on the abundance. 

Our conversation quickly moved onto the things which were thriving in our gardens—the photosynthetic warriors who’d survived heat and haze, squirrel and spurge. My glass gem corn was in fact doing quite well, and the potatoes have filled up all the baskets in the root cellar. We put away many jars of herbs for winter tea, and gave away medicine to those who needed it. Clearwing hummingbird moths and zebra swallowtails are daily visitors to the wildflower patch, and, for the first time, an eastern box turtle decided to permanently move in. 

potatoes on the ground

Her flowers were thriving, and berries produced beautifully. Yes, there were squash borers in the cucurbits, and a neighborhood chipmunk nibbling tree fruit and burrowing tunnels, but harvests were made, pollinators were fed, and we both participated directly in the cycle of birthing and dying that makes us gardeners feel fulfilled and alive. 

Receiving gifts from my friend’s garden reminded me of several important things:

All endeavors in life are a co-creation. We can set an intention, as when we draft our spring garden design or select seeds. We can work to fulfill this vision through hard work, dedication, and learning the wisdom of others who have learned before us. However, at the end of the day, no intention, labor, or wisdom can prevent a masked raccoon from eating that ear of corn under the cloak of twilight, or a grub waking from its interred languor in order to feast on the nearest food source, which may very well be the roots of your crops. By the same token, no one can plan for that magnificent volunteer plant which came up in just the right spot or produced a crop better than that of the plants your coddled. Gardeners learn that we must acquiesce to the natural law, to fate, to sharing our abundance with all the other walks of life out there. 

I was also reminded of how important community is- we don’t need to grow everything, or everything perfectly. What didn’t do well in your garden likely thrived in someone else’s, and vice versa? May we share the food, fruit, flowers, and medicines that thrive in our area, and receive that which we lack. May we also invest in those things which grow without excessive effort!

Finally, I came to remember how there are food and medicine everywhere, it just takes the right lens with which to see the world. Maybe your tomatoes have waned, but have you taken advantage of all the chicken of the woods and black trumpets in the forest? (Be sure you get an expert positive ID on any wild mushroom.) Some of your garlic may have rotted, but have you put perennials in the ground, like the delectable figs which are bearing now? Your tender greens may have crisped, but have you started seeds for fall or tried heat-tolerant collards? What about growing your own micro-greens?

A diversified garden and diversified community bring us the most resilience, as gardeners and as humans. Any type of gardening is an act of resistance, a victory. Do what you can, and when it’s time to let go, just as the trees in the soon-approaching fall, let...go. And then, look around and see all that is left. Failed crops and weeds are excellent compost. Gardening mistakes are valuable learning experiences. Gardening reminds us what it is to be human and it is reassuring to remember that despite all our ancestors’ lost crops due to drought, disease, theft, or negligence, food was found and life continued. 

Happy late-summer letting go, and merry fall cropping (and cover-cropping!) Be sure to take some reflective porch-sitting moments to catalog both your successes and shortcomings this year, and above all, be sure to appreciate the things which are thriving, and the work you put in to grow food, beauty, and habitat this year.