Lessons from the garden

Lessons from the garden

My garden teaches me to have faith.

K. Elting Brock

© Ruth Hartnup (CC BY 2.0)

© Ruth Hartnup (CC BY 2.0)


My grandmother told me that to believe in God, all you had to do was put a seed in the ground and watch it grow into a living thing. Precocious child that I was, I wanted to set her straight about how plants really grow, but I’m glad now that I never did. The more time I spend in my own garden, observing the way life begins again each day, the closer I come to understanding my grandmother, and indeed the more I come to find my garden a holy place.

My garden is not spectacular. There are little patches of dying grass and myriad weeds. My vegetable rows are never straight or evenly spaced. Some years the tomatoes get blossom-end rot, or a fungus may spread across the delphiniums, or the wide circle of brilliant irises might produce one single blossom the entire spring.

But there are also early summer mornings when my son Ian and I amble to the berry patch when the raspberries have arrived in ripe thick clusters across the vines, and we’ll sit amidst the prickly canes and have an entire breakfast of berries. There are days in the heat of midsummer when I kneel next to the tomatoes and breathe in their inimitable musky scent and regard it as a small miracle that a tiny yellow flower grows into something so much beyond itself. And there are days when I first notice that the half-moon pods of the lingua di fuoco (tongue of fire) beans have acquired their streaks of red running the length of them as if some garden sprite had taken a tiny paintbrush to them in the night.

If you pay attention the garden will teach you things. Like patience and hope and the grace of return.

A few springs ago, I noticed all my neighbors’ yards flaunted rows of brilliant red tulips, clusters of egg-yolk daffodils, and grape hyacinths gathered in knotty little bunches at every corner. My yard seemed to be in a different seasonal zone altogether. I had one daffodil ease itself open unnoticeably under the mailbox, but my lineup of tulips—which had great futures as burgundy- and yellow- and red- and orange-striped beauties—stood poised but stubbornly unopened.

Sometimes you’ve done everything you can with the watering can and mulch and compost, and all you can do is wait. But as I waited for my tulip friends to open wide, I thought back to another spring for one more possibility.

It was when Ian was four, and I remember being terribly grateful for spring. It had been a metaphorically long, hard winter—the first winter of being divorced, which I’d spent convincing myself that the dark months would dissolve into light. So when my first tiny crocus slipped its wee yellow tips through a dusting of snow, I stood on my front step privately cheering it on. “Good for you,” I whispered, for myself perhaps as much as the flower. Then I showed Ian the crocus peaking out from under its white blanket.

“Look!” I said, “It’s our first flower of spring.” His face sparkled as he spied the blossom in the snow. He hovered over the crocus, then clapped his hands loudly as if giving a standing ovation to life returned—life in a hardy little blossom that refused to coil back despite the cold ground, the snow, maybe even loneliness at being the first to have arrived.

So, after I’d thought back to Ian’s ovation for the crocus, I knew exactly what I needed to do for my current challenge with the stubborn tulips: I slipped outside and gave them a big hand, thanking them for their resilience, their beauty, and the grace of their return, no matter how slow.

Pruning is my least favorite activity in the garden. Preparing the soil and poking the seeds in the ground, planting annuals and sprouts of vegetables, I do with beloved anticipation and hope, curiosity, and maybe a tiny bit of wonder. Harvesting? Oh the best, eating the fruits of your labor, sharing big veggies with friends, cutting bouquets of flowers to adorn the kitchen table. Harvest is a triumph of my collaboration with and connection to the earth.

But pruning, pruning is maintenance. Who wants to do that?

Rumi, the thirteenth-century Sufi mystic, urges us to “Give up this life and get a hundred new lives.” It’s important to do that from time to time: to let go, something I suppose we all have a hard time with. But if I can do in my life what I do in the garden, I am blessed with the hope of a hundred new lives.

Think of petunias. They’re rather pedestrian little annuals, but I love them. They’re beautiful and hardy, and soon after they bloom, their little flowers shrivel up and fold in on themselves; they droop, clearly knowing it’s time to let go. Perhaps what’s most gratifying is that the gentlest of plucks releases them and creates an opportunity for another blossom, which seems almost immediate.

It’s healthy to let go of what no longer serves us. Think of the raspberry canes we cut back to nibs, the lilac bush, the fruit trees—all for their continued growth, and the same with me. I try to regard pruning not as maintenance, but as a joyous art of cutting away the spent and the dead to make light and space for new life.

My mother, who can grow anything, wears a sweatshirt that says, “Gardening is a way of believing in tomorrow.” I suppose that must be what sends me to the yard each season: that hope, that longing. I trust the seeds I sow and the sun and the soil and the hardiness of the vine. I trust my abilities as well as my acceptance of the surprise ending. Perhaps just my belief in the possibility of new life is enough.

Which brings me back round to my grandmother and her seeds and finding God in their birth and blooming. It’s good to have faith that our seeds will burst from the earth, that our lives will keep growing, that when one season is over, another will take its place. Perhaps what makes a place holy and what fills us with grace is that which teaches us to have faith. For me, my garden is that place.