High Noon in the Garden

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Vegetable gardening is not for the faint of heart.  In the few short weeks of the growing season, there is all manner of botanical birth, growth, reproduction, withering and death in such ultra-compressed fashion, it can leave even the veteran gardener gasping for air.  I consider myself somewhat bold and fearless in my every day roles, as any good physician (or mother) must be, but when it comes to the facts of life as played out in the garden,  I turn all mushy.

This week there was no question what needed to be accomplished.  The sun was out,  the seeds planted a few weeks ago were finally beginning to show themselves above ground, but they were literally drowning in a sea of weeds.   The joy of germination was turning into the heartbreak of overabundant indiscriminate growth.  It was time for action.

I awoke early, emotionally preparing myself.  I pulled on my jeans and hooded sweatshirt, stepped into rubber boots,  armed my pockets with trowel and garden hook, and adopted a confident stance as I stared at the expanse of green sprouts before me.

“Gonna kill me some weeds,”  I muttered menacingly from under my straw hat, looking like Wyatt Earp at high noon, rolling up my sleeves, and hitching up my pants like a sharp shooter.

I first went to the defense of the carrot row.  Tiny carrot seedlings are some of the most vulnerable in the garden.  They start as two little grass-like shoots, very weed-like in their beginnings.  In a few days, the next shoot is the identity give-away: a feathery leaf looking very much like carrot green tops.  True effective weeding really can’t start until the carrots can be distinguished from weeds, even the look-alike frilly weeds that pretend they are carrots so they will be left alone.  Very clever camouflage, but not to my sharp eye.

The real carrots are tender little plants, barely clutching the ground with one little root string as compared to the deep hold that weeds have in the soil — weeds make a satisfying “pop” sound when successfully pulled out by the roots.  This work requires down on your hands and knees finger weeding, the dirt-under-the-nails sort-through-each-little-green-shoot-to-find-the-right-one-to-pull technique.  Even so, despite my best intentions, the “real” plants still get pulled accidentally:  my father called that “thinning”, another cruel and painful aspect of gardening when perfectly good plants are pulled out to make more space for the near neighbors.  It still seems all too arbitrary and capricious.

All this weed-o-cide makes me think about a book I read in the early seventies, The Secret Life of Plants by Tompkins and Bird.  They gave me a new understanding of the challenges of being a plant.  I almost can hear the high pitched little shrieks some scientists have recorded as plants are plucked, cut or mowed down.   Then there is the very real question of what is a weed and how it has become victim to our human prejudice about what is worthwhile to grow and what is not.  Maybe since the dawn of time we humans have watched the slugs, the squirrels, the birds, the deer and the rabbits decide what is tastier, and frankly my dear,  it isn’t the weeds.

But who am I to say that a beet plant is more worthy to exist than quack grass?   What animosity and enormous resource is expended to rid the world of the lovely dandelion’s perfect sphere of seeds about to blow with the wind, or the waxy buttercup meant to tickle a child’s chin into a yellow reflection.

But I’m only the gardener with a job to do.  It’s dirty work, but someone has to do it.

By the end of the morning as the sun beats down directly overhead, neat little rows of honest to goodness domesticated plants become obvious and the garden pathways are littered with weed carcasses as well as a few thinned radishes, beets and carrots.   High noon indeed.  I gaze at my spent weapons–dirty hands and fingertips that are barely recognizable–and sigh deeply.   Until the next skirmish to keep the weedy invaders from infiltrating, I can rest easier knowing my little plants have less chance of being overwhelmed by the encroaching wilderness of weeds and varmints.

So I lay down my arms, clean the dirt from under my fingernails, and sit down to listen to the symphony sounds of plants happily growing…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Alms to the Poor

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That year I discovered the virtues
of plants as companions: they don’t
argue, they don’t ask for much,
they don’t stay out until 3:00 A.M., then
lie to you about where they’ve been…

I can’t summon the ambition
to repot this grape ivy, or this sad
old cactus, or even move them out
onto the porch for the summer
where their lives would certainly
improve.  I give them
a grudging dash of water-
that’s all they get.

The truth is that if I permit them
to live, they will go on giving
alms to the poor: sweet air, miraculous
flowers, the example of persistence.
~Jane Kenyon from “Killing of Plants”

During my dorm room years
and city apartment dwelling days,
this former farm girl was reconciled
to no pets allowed,
so I surrounded myself with an indoor garden,
every square inch of window sill
occupied by a living thing
whose survival depended only partially on me.

Those plants sustained me,
cheered me, moved me,
moved with me to windows
with better light and grander views.
Despite my neglect,
they persisted, often thrived,
and gave back to my shriveled city spirit
far beyond any water or repotting offered.

Somehow these miracles in chlorophyll
knew just what I needed when I needed it:
they fed me when I was starving
for something live,
something beautiful,
something that knew exactly what to do
and what to become
when I had no clue.

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Let Them Be Left

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What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and wildness?
Let them be left,O let them be left, wildness and wet,
Long live the weeds and the wildness yet.
~Gerard Manley Hopkins from “Inversnaid”

 

Maybe I identify with weeds as I too have grown a bit “excessive” in mid-life, growing unnecessarily and a bit fluffier than I need be.  Maybe I admire their ability to thrive where they land, resilient through all sorts of trials and deprivation.  Certainly they deserve appreciation for their wildly unique characteristics and their perfect imperfections.  Once I get to know them,  their beauty brings me joy.

I can only hope I too can be left,  my over-proliferation shown grace, my greediness granted mercy.

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In nature, nothing is perfect and everything is perfect.
~Alice Walker

 

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…if the simple things in nature have a message you understand,
Rejoice, for your soul is alive.
~Eleanora Duse

 

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Weeds are flowers too, once you get to know them.
~A. A. Milne

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…make no mistake:  the weeds will win; nature bats last.
~Robert M. Pyle

 

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Wish to Whiteness

swirlHer body is not so white as
anemony petals nor so smooth—nor
so remote a thing. It is a field
of the wild carrot taking
the field by force; the grass
does not raise above it.
Here is no question of whiteness,
white as can be, with a purple mole
at the center of each flower.

Each flower is a hand’s span
of her whiteness. Wherever
his hand has lain there is
a tiny purple blemish. Each part
is a blossom under his touch
to which the fibres of her being
stem one by one, each to its end,
until the whole field is a
white desire, empty, a single stem,
a cluster, flower by flower,
a pious wish to whiteness gone over—
or nothing.
~William Carlos Williams — “Queen Anne’s Lace”
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queenannes

Always Summer

pinkroseThe serene philosophy of the pink rose is steadying.  It fragrant, delicate petals open fully and are ready to fall, without regret or disillusion, after only a day in the sun.  It is so every summer.  One can almost hear their pink, fragrant murmur as they settle down upon the grass: “Summer, summer, it will always be summer.”
~ Rachel Peden

And so it always will be summer when one lets go in the midst of brightness when all is glorious.  No cold winds, no unending days of rain, no mildew, no iced walkways, no 18 hours of night every day, no turning brown with rot.

Serene and steadying — with so much brevity.

Let me be strong and serene through all seasons rather than letting go at the height of delicate beauty.  Let me thrive steady through the hard times rather than withering at my peak.  Let me age, let me turn gray, let me wrinkle.

It may always be summer — someday — but not yet.  Not here. Not now.

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Opening Up

photo by Josh Scholten

There is not a flower that opens, not a seed that falls into the ground, and not an ear of wheat that nods on the end of its stalk in the wind that does not preach and proclaim the greatness and the mercy of God to the whole world.
~Thomas Merton

This coming Thanksgiving week is a time of reflection about the gifts given freely to us, even when we are undeserving and ungrateful.  I am struck every day by how much I routinely take for granted as something I have somehow “earned” by my existence,  whether it is my ability to get up out of bed and walk to wherever I need to go,  or opening up cupboards and a freezer full of food, or taking in the view outside my window of the mighty Cascade mountains and Canadian Rockies.  Even my next breath is not a given yet I assume it will happen without interruption.

A lesson I’ve learned from my botanical mentors just outside my back door —  nothing is earned by simply being alive.  Instead,  being alive allows us to proclaim our unending gratitude.  Whether it is a seed rising from the ground, a bud opening its face to the sun, or the gathering harvest of grain and seed to start the process over again,  we gladly sing of His greatness by showing up, growing and being alive as we are meant to be.  Grateful, always grateful.

Mercy follows us through the hours of our days and nights, even as we wither to frail and someday die, still thankful for His Hand on us, ready to lift us when we are about to fail and fall.  We are as fragile as the grasses with bending and broken stems, yet our voices sing praise beyond our roots.

May our gratitude reseed, grow, bloom and continue to be harvested forever.

photo by Josh Scholten
photo by Josh Scholten
photo by Josh Scholten

Sweet Peas Run Wild

A dichotomy in October

“Poetry is a rich, full-bodied whistle, cracked ice crunching in pails, the night that numbs the leaf, the duel of two nightingales, the sweet pea that has run wild, Creation’s tears in shoulder blades.”
~Boris Pasternak

Sweet peas and pumpkins are strange neighbors on the same table
Always separated by weather and season,
one from late spring, the other from mid-autumn,
truly never meant to meet.

Yet here they are, side by side,
grown in the same soil
through the same weeks,
their curling vines entwined.

A dropped packet of sweet pea seeds
forgotten in the weeds during summer rains;
escapees swelled and thrived, now forming rich autumn blooms
gracing a harvest table with bright pastels and spring time fragrance.

Perhaps I too may bloom where I land, even ill-timed, out of place,
I might run wild, interwoven, bound to others
who look nothing like me, encouraged to climb higher,
to blossom bravely in the face of a killing frost.

“Here are sweet-peas, on tip-toe for a flight:
With wings of gentle flush o’er delicate white,
And taper fingers catching at all things,
To bind them all about with tiny rings.”
~John Keats