By Rachel Rose
It’s spring, my first spring back in the Northwest since I was a child, and the first spring I’ve had a garden of my own. When we rented this house, I looked at the large, weedy yard as a liability. I had never considered becoming a gardener; my life was too full already. Gardening just snuck up on me, one petunia at a time.
You’d think, with all the exposure I’ve had to gardening, I would have taken to it more easily. My mother is a master gardener of the obsessive-compulsive variety. Ever since I can remember, any house we’ve lived in has been over-run by plants. I have nothing against the occasional potted fern or obedient ficus in the living room. But my mother carried everything to extremes. I would try to heat something up in the microwave and find it full of dirt that she was sterilizing. There was scarcely room in the fridge for milk and eggs with all her seedpods and bulbs (we eventually solved this finally by buying an old fridge for her to keep on the porch).
I distinctly remember a winter when I was picked up early due to a snowstorm, and my mother drove home frantic with worry-the power was out, my stepfather was away on business. Was she worried about us kids? Nope. Working by candlelight, my mother tenderly bundled each of her most vulnerable plants and carefully loaded them into the car. My brother and I rolled our eyes at her anxiety. Though we couldn’t say so, we were jealous of her flowers. We spent the night in a heated motel filled with fragrant blossoms.
And did I mention the mess I grew up with? Gardening, at least the way my mother does it, is not for the faint of heart. There are always unfinished projects, rock and manure piles. There is always a certain amount of chaos. When my parents bought a new farm, my mother’s first act upon moving in was to tear up the front lawn so she could create a swamp.
“Think of it, kiddos,” she told her unenthusiastic offspring. “Brilliant yellow skunk cabbage, lotus in the pond. Turtles! Red-winged blackbirds…”
“Why can’t we just have a lawn like normal people?” demanded my brother.
“Don’t be boring,” snapped my mother. “Now dig. You’re gonna love it.”
I agreed with my brother. Who wanted to track swamp gunk indoors? And why would we want anything to do with skunk cabbage?
A few years ago I carelessly crushed one of my mother’s handmade dried-flower wreaths against the door, and she burst into tears. I apologized half-heartedly. “They’re just dried flowers,” I pointed out. “I’ll buy you another wreath.”
“Honey, flowers are my art. I made that wreath! This is my art, don’t you understand that?”
I didn’t understand, not then. But here I am, a mother myself now, trowel in hand. My twenty-month old son follows my every step as I dig. “Big worm for Benjamin!” he demands, and I lift one up for him to touch.
We have started spending more and more time in this yard. At first it was an excuse for me to get out of the house-he plays happily outside, and for longer stretches. We explore the grass together, and I marvel at his first sight of things: the spiraling shell of a snail, the wet silver it leaves on his chubby hands. The lizard he finds in the grass. The noisy crows which first alarm and then fascinate him.
One day outside Safeway, Benjamin drew my attention to the flower displays. “Want blue!” he chanted. “Want yellow, orange, purple!” I bought a few primroses and set them out in back, and then I began to weed, mostly to pass the time.
Now he strokes the petals when he passes. “Beautiful flowers,” he says softly. “Benjamin gentle.”
Having five primroses in a large expanse of weeds is rather aesthetically displeasing. So we bought a few more, and then, one life-changing day, I ventured into a nursery. Ben and I picked out seeds according to the prettiest pictures on the packets.
Over the next few weeks, I realized that gardening was the most peaceful part of my day as a stay-at-home mum. In fact, whenever Ben was out of sorts, I took him out to the garden. And slowly, slowly I figured it out.
Flowers are my mother’s art, just as writing is mine. As a child, I didn’t want her to do anything that diverted her attention from me. I never tried to garden with her, and never understood why she would want to be alone outdoors on cool spring mornings when she could have been inside playing with me. Now that I’m a mother, I’m glad she persisted. My son is my heart’s delight, but he is not my whole life. Writing is my art, and I persist despite the time it takes away from mothering, because it enriches my spirit.
Gardening, however, is something he and I enjoy together.
One day as I was putting in a row of red chard, Ben called out in alarm, “Worm broken!” I realized he had accidentally pulled a worm in half, and for a brief flash (It’s just a worm…) I considered ignoring him so I would have time to finish the row. But then my better instincts won out, and I showed him how the worm had been hurt and how he could be more gentle next time. He listened intently, and I learned then that his desire was to be gentle, and that he had no innate squeamishness or fear of any living thing.
Our garden is far from finished, but it is beautiful. We have tomatoes, carrots, peas and beans. We have rows of lavender and orange poppies. We have lilacs and bleeding-hearts and roses. We also have aphids, slugs and weeds, and sometimes, despite the beauty, I think that the whole thing is more trouble than it’s worth.
But most of the time I am delighted at the new things my son and I are learning. He is learning to be gentle with all living things, learning how plants grow, learning the beauty of raspberry canes intertwined with pink sweet peas on an old wooden fence, learning the daily care and time required to harvest tomatoes. I am learning the art of humility, learning what things look like from the other side of the fence. I am learning to reconsider my instinctive “no” and to open myself to “yes.” Yes to chaos, yes to skunk cabbage, yes to holding hands with my little guy and following the flight of a black and yellow swallowtail butterfly, yes to half an hour of spraying the hose to make rainbows against the sun, even if it means we both need a complete change of clothes later on.
Many of my gardening projects remain unfinished; weeds and imperfections abound. But the union with my son flourishes like the scarlet runner beans we planted together, spreading gloriously right over the ten-foot fence. Although I haven’t turned the front yard into a swamp yet, I have finally learned what my mother knew all along: the intense pleasure to be found gardening with my child in sun-warmed, fragrant earth.
Rachel Rose lives with her family in Vancouver, Canada, where, if you don’t mind getting rained on, you can garden year-round. She is the author of the award-winning book of poetry Giving My Body To Science.