I’ve always enjoyed gardening in a hacker sort of way. I like the notion of growing flowers and vegetables and having pretty things in the yard that attract butterflies and other fauna, but I cannot name flowers by sight or name the all-important “growing regions” that indicate when to plant phlox versus aster in different areas of the country. I love growing vegetables in the garden and have read a couple of books about it, but would have to go back to the dog-eared pages to remind myself how to actually put any of it into action. I buy seeds and throw them in the ground rather than creating seedlings indoors “8 weeks before the last frost” or whatever the directions say. So I am not a Gardener in the capital-G sense but could definitely see myself becoming one with more time and resources.
In the scant three months since my father passed I’ve found myself passing many an hour in the urban blight that is my garden, more determined than ever to coax some life and beauty from the earth. I’m not sure why. Partly it’s because the challenge of trying to get something—anything--to grow in a DC 6x6 back and front yard without insane amounts of money and professional landscaping is perhaps on par with keeping Marion Barry off drugs and off any electoral ballots. It’s The Impossible Dream. Or even The Crack Pipe Dream. Our next door neighbors, whom I’ll call Felix and Oscar, had their dirt scientifically checked. They said the heavy metal content was high enough to make them grow anything edible only in containers with purchased soil. Niiice. The guy who owned the house before it became Chez Haggis committed so many crimes against botany that I can’t even begin to list them, so the challenges are prodigious.
Perhaps the other reason I’ve found solace amidst the challenge that is my garden is the fact that it represents many of my father’s unfinished projects. I have three out of control rose bushes in the back yard that he was going to show me “as soon as I feel better” how to prune and shape in the most productive and bloom-enhancing way. The tomato plants that last year produced many flowers but then fruit that can only be described charitably as “blueberry tomatoes,” were going to be the object of his tomato plant obsessiveness this summer. Together he and I were going to grow enough tomatoes to put the Ball® mason jar company out of business and to keep Chez Haggis en la tomate all winter. And finally, I was going to grow him some rhubarb, a plant I have always hated but that he has always grown and loved. I choked it down as a kid because he and my mom loaded the stalks with sugar, and I can manageably digest it if it is in pie with strawberries. But mostly I just can’t deal with rhubarb, wondering how it came to be considered a food product in the first place. But I was going to grow the most robust and “delicious” rhubarb of all time and surprise him with not only a pie but a bushel of the infernal weed itself for his own nefarious culinary purposes.
So maybe I see my time in the garden as me taking up where he had to leave off, perhaps figuratively becoming the person I have to become without his physical presence in my life. Now I can’t say, “Oh, Dad will show me how to prune those roses later so we’ll do it then.” Now is later. And the “we” is me.
Maybe it’s also like the recently-passed poet Stanley Kunitz said about his passion for gardening in a book he published at 100 years old: “It’s the way things are, death and life inextricably bound to each other. One of my feelings about working the land is that I am celebrating a ritual of death and resurrection. Every spring I feel that. I am never closer to the miraculous than when I am grubbing in the soil.”
And for me, maybe I'm never closer to my father than when I'm grubbing in that same soil he grubbed in too, hoping to make something bloom from the work of my hands, the knowledge he gave me in my head, and the sometimes-steady and always-furtive water of my tears.