If you want to know that you are not all-powerful, plant a garden. Sooner or later, some storm or sapling will defy all your efforts to make something out of the dirt.
This year I didn’t plant my garden until the second weekend of June. In mid-May, as the trees bloomed and the weather warmed, I planted lemon balm, lemon verbena, and three varieties of mint in terra-cotta pots for the porch. But everything else had to wait. My housemate and I were moving, and we couldn’t transport a bed of herbs from one place to the next.
Finally, on June 12, Rachael and I bought armfuls of plants at the farmers’ market. My mother met us in the backyard to help since we expected to spend a few hours hoeing and raking the dirt. But the ground was already so soft. The new materials enriched what was already rich. Soon two types of tomatoes (started in Petoskey by my housemate’s mother) stood on one end of the planter, and sage, parsley, rosemary, two types of thyme, and four types of basil spread across the rest.
When my family visited my grandfather in rural Minnesota, I was always amazed by his memory of the weather. A summer fifty years ago had been much more humid than this sticky July; in two past winters, major snowstorms had arrived before Thanksgiving. Sometimes Grandpa would search the almanac to reference a year, but more times than not, he could name the year more quickly than anyone could flip the pages.
As a suburbanite, the forecast didn’t mean much more to me than canceled plans. At most, we’d gain a snow day in Iowa or worry about an earthquake in California. The weather was a topic for small-talk, a phenomenon to complain or cheer about as we wished. For my grandfather, a lifelong farmer, the weather was not just a social concern—it was an economic one. Of course he knew all the whims of the elements. It was his business to learn, his livelihood to grow or lose.
The month of July isn’t half over yet, and three of our precious plants have already died. The lemon verbena shriveled up before it could move to the new porch. The peppermint—usually so abundant—survived the move then rejected its new spot. In late June, I replaced it with a new plant which is already double the size of its predecessor. Half of the rosemary looks more like a brown twig than an herb. The other half is perfectly healthy, and last night I trimmed it to chop for an herb butter.
During the growing season, we water our garden; we watch our garden; we worry about our garden. These plants’ lives are utterly dependent on human care, and still human care isn’t enough to sustain them. Somehow, despite our best efforts, some of these plants are determined not to survive. Even after millennia of agricultural progress, no rabbit cage or Miracle-Gro product can guarantee complete control.
When hope grows strong in John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, the central family starts talking about making a beautiful garden of their land: “…acres of sweet peas and gold squares of calendulas. Maybe ten acres of roses for the gardens of the West.”
New father Adam sculpts out the idea, deep in love with a wife he does not know. A generation later, his sons Cal and Aron circle towards it as they struggle towards adulthood. The garden is a beautiful dream, an unrealistic dream, and a dream that goes unfulfilled by the end of the book. But the Trasks can’t stop imagining what it would be like if survival and beauty could intertwine.
I don’t start my garden from seed (I’m a bit too lazy for that). And I don’t grow fussy vegetables that require constant, careful weeding (I’m also too lazy for that). My housemate was adventurous enough to request our two tomato plants, and I’m still learning how to care for those water-guzzling beauties. I’ve carefully tamed my tiny slice of agriculture into something I can manage: and even that, I can’t completely predict.
Sometimes, on our trips to rural Minnesota, we’d join our relatives for their Thanksgiving church service. In suburbia, the harvest phrases in Psalms and Ecclesiastes felt sweet, quaint, seasonally appropriate if not terribly relatable. But here the words didn’t seem so distant from everyday life, from the people who’d small-talk about crops over their coffee. The congregation could speak the language of reliance in an unpredictable world.
The garden is starting to reach its peak again. Tiny-leaved thyme creeps towards large, lush trees of basil. Fragrant towers of tomatoes loom over the plot, drooping whenever a hot day saps their water supply. On the porch, the orange mint drapes over the edges of its pot. The lemon balm catches each day’s last sunlight between its scalloped leaves.
As the plants grow, I’m starting to resume the pleasant summer rhythm of walking outside, picking a plant, then measuring out a recipe with my scissors. I can’t wait to pluck tomatoes from their vines and chop them up for salads or bruschetta. I’m not the first person who has found the work of a garden worthwhile, and I certainly won’t be the last. Even now, hands in the dirt, you can still glimpse a tiny piece of Eden.
Courtney Zonnefeld graduated in 2018 with a degree in writing. She currently lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where she works for Eerdmans Books for Young Readers. In her free time, she enjoys reading, baking, and saving up for more herb plants. You can usually find her wandering a farmer’s market, hunting for vintage books, or browsing the tea selection in coffee shops.