At peace with the garden

This garden may not be ready to grace the cover of a magazine, but it provides joy and understanding.

Sefton Ipock/Anderson Independent-Mail/AP/File
IN THE DIRT: A woman pulls weeds in front of her home in Anderson, S.C.

When I moved from Boston to the Connecticut suburbs, I longed for a patch of land I could sink my hands into, a place where I could sit and ponder life and achieve some sort of Zen existence.

The Buddha claimed to achieve enlightenment while under a Bodhi tree near the Ganges River. Maybe I could do the same under a silver maple near the Connecticut River. I started to dream – and to plan.

My new yard cried out for gardens. So did I. I conjured up ways to revive the stale landscape. Sunflowers would go here, lilacs there.

I would revive the empty dirt rectangle into a thriving vegetable plot. I’d put a hammock between those trees, a bird feeder under that one. A customized sanctuary. It would be very Zen.

I consulted gardening books and websites and thought about the major aspects of horticulture. My driveway became a circus of pots filled with perennials, herbs, and vegetables. I couldn’t help myself. Most of the plants died before I got them in the ground.

I decided to stop planning and start acting.

The first weeks of the season I devoted to the not-so-empty dirt rectangle. I excavated glass, fish bones, and broken pots. Matted roots choked the soil. I thought I would never start planting. I eschewed the desire to drop my shovel and head to the beach and eventually saw results.

I grew a lot of things that summer, mostly grass – barnyard grass, crab grass, and creeping Charlie. I spent hours weeding each day, and every night while I slept, they returned. An unruly jungle of weeds and grass towered over everything. Was this supposed to be relaxing? I wondered when I would get to use that hammock.

As summer progressed, zucchini and tomatoes poked through the overgrowth and they tasted mighty fresh. Comparing the hours worked to the vegetables harvested, I figured they cost me about $20 per pound.

I vowed that next year would be different – the flowers blooming, the vegetables prolific. Then I would sit back and reap the benefits. Then I would understand.

The next spring, I prepped the garden better than before. I dug up roots, tilled, and spread manure. Things were off to a delicious start.

And then the heat wave came. And lingered. I bought an air conditioner and, from my kitchen window, watched the weeds climb toward the sun.

The plants did grow, but I had to work overtime, yanking weeds and the grass, grass, grass. I came to appreciate that weeding could be a meditative act.

By season’s end, I even began to look forward to those hours kneeling in the dirt, my personal prayer for the earth.

Tearing the creeping Charlie from the stems of phlox and purple coneflowers, I thought of the importance of the ritual, this peeling and discarding of the things that pull us down.

As I watered my vegetables, I took the time to meditate, raise my head to the sky, and give thanks.

Last summer’s efforts outshone the others. I knew more and expected less. I plucked grass from the garden knowing it would return, and that would be OK.

By August, the sunflowers stood poised and angled. I picked six acorn squash. I thought of how the weeds coiled themselves around the plant and it didn’t seem to mind.

I gushed with pride, although I knew I could not really take the credit. The garden, I came to realize, took care of itself.

Here in my yard is a healthy mix of grass and garden, plants and weeds, toil and relaxation. There’s even a butterfly or two.

Maybe someday I’ll have a yard that belongs in Better Homes and Gardens. But for now, I look past stalks of grass at my lilies. I admire my tomatoes, dangling lustily from the vine, and the peppers, shiny and daring like a new pair of cowboy boots – and I think, next year, I will do better.

By September, I am ready to turn in my shovel for other pursuits. As the air cools and the leaves bronze, I am relieved. I think of all the time I will have.

But I know that soon I will fantasize about next summer’s garden. My stomach will flutter with anticipation as I say my garden mantra: “I will approach my garden with peace and gentleness. I will water and weed religiously. I will till the rich, black soil, the scent of earth and thyme and mint filling my nostrils as the sun warms my neck.

“I will embrace the grass, the roots, the sweat, and the toil. I will expect nothing and cherish everything. I will put on my ugly flowered gloves, grab my battered tools, and tend my garden. And somehow, in spite of me, it will grow.”

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