As diehard football fans may re-member, a while back the Denver Broncos had a quarterback by the name of Tim Tebow. There was some controversy at the time over some of his opinions and whether he had “intangibles” (like a throwing arm). I didn’t follow it closely, but he seemed like a nice young man. To me, by far his most outlandish statement was a remark in an interview about helping his father in the garden as a kid:
“It was way too big. My dad did it for misery. It was like a half-acre garden. It was ridiculous to work in that.”
Though he was a gifted athlete and a big celebrity, young Tim lacked the maturity to appreciate his old man’s wisdom. Perhaps dating Miss Universe distracted him from the fundamental truth: there’s no such thing as a garden that’s way too big.
I know this because I got my start in a community garden, where elders were revered as repositories of the knowledge we beginners needed to succeed. Without their guidance, I’d prob-ably be direct-seeding tomatoes in hard pan in late June. So I’ve always respected senior garden mentors. I even grow elderberries.
In a culture designed to appeal to the 18-35 cohort and glorify attractive young athletes, entertainers, and bachelorettes, the gar-den is one of the last places in our society where age is honored.
It takes years to figure out the nuances of soil fertility, crop rotation, vacation planning, and all the other factors of horticultural success, and the garden gives us regular reminders that we never know everything. Last year my corn shot up beautifully to knee-high, then just stopped growing, as if it thought the Fourth of July was the finish line rather than an intermediate checkpoint. I have no idea why, so I obviously still have much to learn. This is one of the things I have in common with Thomas Jefferson, who put it this way: “Though an old man, I am but a young gardener.”
That’s me. After a couple of decades in the garden, I’m still learning from my mistakes.
When my kids were little, I tried to get them interested in gardening by growing vegetables together. They had some fun and liked the carrots, but over time they adopted a more Tebowist view. Not until they were older did I realize we should have been growing candy: strawberries, raspberries, musk melons. They love these treats from the garden now, but they must think, So what was with the kale and turnips all those years?
As I get closer to being an old man, I’m holding on to Jefferson’s concept of remaining a young gardener in other ways. Certainly the exercise, fresh air, and healthy food rejuvenate us. And I used to feel young relative to the other gardeners. When I started gardening, it seemed like a hobby reserved mainly for older people. Since I had not yet built up the proper soil or expertise, my weedy plot was no match for my elders’ effortless abundance. But I regained that great feeling we usually have only in young adulthood, of starting an exciting new endeavor with a long bright future ahead. Just at the time of life when I started to feel older than everyone—not just sports stars, but my doctor, the adolescent TV newscasters, the other people in line at the dispensary—I was happy to find a place where I was the naïve yet ambitious upstart. (I’m just kid-ding about the dispensary.)
Now the garden fork has been passed to a new generation. Many young people, passionate about environmental and food issues, are getting into gardening. This seems to be happening to me generally. Everything I’ve always liked to do is suddenly popular among millennials: Gardening, drinking IPA, play-ing ukulele, falling off the traditional career path and ending up in the gig economy. I’ve inadvertently become hip—I mean, a hipster.
The new interest in gardening among the young gives me hope for the world, and hope that my clumsy efforts might still pass my love for growing healthy food to my own kids. Perhaps I have planted seeds that will germinate in them years later. Surely an older and wiser Tim Tebow now attributes all his success to the work ethic and nutrition he got in that absurdly large garden.
With all these 20-somethings sharing their garden skills on YouTube, I’m clearly moving into senior status myself. This shocking realization hit home when my wife listed my hair color as “gray” on my online fishing license application. Apparently “silvery blond” was not on the drop-down menu.
But I’m OK with this. In the garden, we don’t mind getting older so much, because it’s a place where we can feel wise and productive our whole lives. Aging is inevitable, but the garden is a good place to do it. It’s even my retirement plan: I’m planting plum trees now so they’ll start bearing plenty of fruit just when I enter my prime prune-eating years. ❖