A few weeks ago I found myself at the local nursery down the road, my baby girl wrapped snug around my right hip, my left hand pulling along my toddler past the blooming peonies and decorative fountains. It was a hot day and he was dragging his feet, more interested in the water wheel, the fairy gardens, and colorful buckets than my desire to wander around looking for organic fertilizer. I got side-tracked staring at the brilliant blue hydrangeas, taking photos of the $759 fountain I just knew my husband should let us buy, and seriously pondering how I could fit 6 fruit trees in the back of my mom-mobile. My kids, they were over it. As I was paying for the one item I came for, I had to giggle. It doesn’t seem like that long ago my own mom was hauling me to all the nurseries, me sighing in boredom as she pulled me around in a garden cart. I spent most of my childhood in our barn, cleaning stalls and watching my mom trim roses in her greenhouse and pick green beans off the trellis. I watched her plant tree after tree and pick the deadheads off petunias in the summer wind. I sat for endless hours listening to her and my aunt gab on and on about rocks and plants and landscaping. Yawn. But my, how quickly we become what we don’t think we ever will.
When I was fresh out of college and making an attempt at domesticity, my dad built me four beautiful raised garden beds. I had no clue what I was doing, but I figured all plants really needed to grow was soil, water, and sunshine. And I was mostly right. Those first few years were a fun adventure, and I learned a lot about myself, and about plants. For example, I turned out to be a terrible farmer, never really harvesting any of my goods, letting the spinach bolt before I ever picked it, not thinning my carrots, and letting my strawberries run rampant. So sometimes it’s hard to believe that I’m now growing and tending a huge garden, and reaping the benefits of it.
We moved from our little beach house to a home on three wild, wooded acres, most of which we have been developing ourselves. My garden here started with, you guessed it, my four original 2×4 garden beds that my dad had built me. My husband, bless him, also hauled my two blueberry bushes in the open bed of his truck down the highway at 65 mph. You can imagine my devastation when they arrived looking rather naked. But everything survived, and it was the first summer I came to understand and appreciate the value in gardening with my son, who was barely 2 years old at the time. Part of the reason we moved to rural property was so we could raise our family more organically, teaching our kids about hard work, outdoor play, food, and animals. In the early part of the year before our daughter was born, my husband and I would sit together, my belly huge and swollen, dreaming of our little farm and garden. We walked around the property, made rough sketches, talked about what it would look like…what it would be like. As most of my mama comrades can understand, it’s often so very hard for parents to get projects in motion with small children and other life responsibilities to take care of, so while we very much wanted to get that chicken coop built and a garden plot set out, it seemed so unreachable.
Our beautiful daughter was born at home in our bedroom in early February, storm raging outside and lights flickering inside. In the weeks that followed, I sat curled up on our bed, listening to her sweet coos and sighs as she popped off the breast with a full tummy, my other hand busy scrolling through pinterest garden ideas and pinning how to raise backyard chickens. I’m one of those ‘do things’ type of people, and before I had kids I was working, teaching classes, finishing my Masters, or summiting mountains. So it stands to reason that I’ve always been a little afraid of losing myself in the depths of motherhood; days of nursing, washing diapers, crying tears of frustration, tears of joy, making lunch, doing dishes, making dinner, doing dishes. I’ve always needed something to focus on where I could just be ‘me,’ and I knew that gardening would provide that place of peace and oasis during this season of my life. When my daughter was going through her fussiest and colicky period of her 5 week old life, my dad came to stay with me to cook, play with my toddler, and keep me company. Knowing I’d struggled through postpartum depression after a bad cesarean birth with my son, we spent a lot of time talking about how I was really doing adjusting to life with two kids. During one of our many heart-to-heart, soul-reaching conversations, my garden dreams came up. Now, you truly have to know this man to understand how his mind works, but he’s a gifted and talented builder-of-things. Amazing is a word that falls short when used to describe him, but it’s just what he is. He would move the moon for me if he could. The wheels were set in motion as he started drawing plans and declaring how he would love nothing more than to come back and start building, with my husband’s help.
Before this story gets away from me and I ramble on for far too long, let me just say now much I cherish our garden, not just because it’s beautiful, but because it was created by the hands of two men I love. The greenhouse was constructed over the course of a few days, my husband and my dad working together, laughing and relaxing over beers at the end of the day. My dad built this with a vision of what it would give his grandkids, and what it would give me. It’s a labor of love, and I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to leave it behind. You see, last year my dad was diagnosed with a terminal blood disease, and while I’ve chosen to not talk about this publicly, the last year has been an emotionally taxing one, to put it lightly. So this place that he designed and built with his hands for us, it means more than any words I could type here. When I planted the butter leaf lettuce in the left-side garden box, I thought of how much he loves it and how I couldn’t wait for him to come visit so I could make him a huge salad of it. He can’t eat greens from the store or anything that has a contamination risk due to his immune system being compromised, so knowing I could give him something fresh and clean that I grew meant the world to me. When my son and I planted the cucumber seeds and we watched them push through the earth to find the light, I thought of the pickles we would make together. Growing big, beautiful roma tomatoes reminded me of the trip I took to Italy with my mom. The sugar peas always make me think of my husband, and the out-of-control plant we grew one summer as newlyweds, naming it Jacque and giving him a French accent as we crunched and popped sweet greens in our mouths. We ended this phase of our garden project with planted flowers and grapes around our arbor, a fountain of trickling water (which, was free by the way, not the million dollar one from the nursery), creating an atmosphere we hope everyone can come together and enjoy conversation underneath. So this garden, it’s really not about food. Not at all. It’s about love. And learning. And memories. And relationships.
And I still don’t know what I’m doing. I’m still just the gal who sometimes lets the spinach bolt before I can harvest it. I try and not overthink anything. I just give it water, provide it rich soil, pray for sunshine, and tend it with love. And when in doubt, I call my mom, and then I ask google. You could look in my search history and find many of the following:
‘How do I hill container potatoes?’
‘When do I harvest potatoes?’
‘How do I know when my potatoes are ready to eat?’
‘Is it bad if my potatoes get taller than the container space I have?’
(You see a theme here with my stress over the potatoes^^)
‘Why is my cilantro flowering?’
‘What can I cook with swiss chard?’
‘Why are my bean leaves turning yellow?’
‘What is eating my strawberries!?’
You get the idea. I’m learning things all the time, knowing that next year I need to give everything a little bit more space, that tomato plants quickly become tomato trees, that cucumber vines should definitely not be planted near bean vines, and that broccoli does not love the heat. We still want to expand to an outdoor plot, where I can try my hand at corn and onions, and eliminate the odds and ends of pots and containers I have going right now. We still want to add that chicken coop next year. We are working on changing our compost system to one that our dog doesn’t find to be his personal all you can eat buffet, and figuring out how to best utilize the water collected in our rain barrels. We want to replant our grass that got dug up and bulldozed to flatten the land for the greenhouse. It’s all one glorious masterpiece in the making, painted by many hands.
Thank you, thank you for delighting and reading about something that has brought my family so much joy. I’ve started calling our garden my third baby, due to all the work it takes to keep plants happy, but oh how I love it! I love that I can escape there after putting my babies to bed, the soft hum of the monitor nearby in case they need me. I love that I’m intimate with it in ways only someone who watched it changed everyday could be. I can get lost in the smell of the tomato vines and basil while munching on sweet carrots. I can let my mind wander, watch the last golden rays of the sun dip below the mountains and giggle at the wild rabbits we have scurrying about. My garden doesn’t care that my 5 month postpartum belly still sticks out, and my garden doesn’t care that I’m too tired to hold a proper conversation. We’re just harmonious beings, working together. You can keep up with our garden adventures on instagram, or search the #laugherygarden hashtag.