I started gardening soon after my first miscarriage, though I didn’t understand it was a miscarriage until I had my second one, and I didn’t understand the timing of my early gardening life until pregnancy and miscarriages were far in my past.
In the late 1980s, my husband Frank and I had bought a 1955 white Colonial on a pretty New Jersey street, hoping to fill three empty bedrooms. Instead, over the next few years, we made them into a guest bedroom, a closet/ironing/junk room, and a home office. There I sat, often sad, and stared out the window at a yard diagonally across the road where a scruffy older man tended bountiful flower gardens, shirtless, from April to October. I especially admired his rangy red and yellow tulips and the way something new always shot out color just as something else withered back to green.
One fall Saturday we had a yard sale and our neighbor wandered over, shirtless, a cigarette dangling from his mouth. He introduced himself as Mike, bought one of Frank’s tools, and lingered to chat. We learned that Mike and his wife, who I’d never seen, had one grown son, and we told him we hoped to have children one day. I complimented his flowers and told him him how I looked out my window every day to see what might bloom next. He explained that his wife suffered from severe agoraphobia, and gardening allowed him to get outside for hours but still be “at home.”
A few weeks later, Mike rang the doorbell and handed me a bulging paper sack.
“Tulip bulbs,” he said. “I wrote a note inside about how to plant them, but not till November. There around that tree might be nice,” he said, pointing to a massive old sycamore with thinned-out branches. Mike’s shirtless back receded down my front steps before I could mumble a confused “Thanks.”
I had approximately the same amount of knowledge about coaxing flowers from long-neglected soil as I did about getting and staying pregnant with a body that didn’t ovulate regularly, had a key organ that tilted where it should be straight, and lacked the proper levels of a particularly important hormone.
Yet unlike planting thriving babies, I had luck with gardening right from the start. The next Spring, as soon as I saw the tulip stems poke up around the tree, I noticed how much better I felt about the big empty house each time I pulled into the driveway. We continued to fill calendars with ovulation dates, fertility doctor visits, and early morning basal temperatures, but I was suddenly overcome with the idea of filling the yard, too. I rushed out to the local garden center and in two hours spent something close to what we’d invested in fertility drugs and ovulation kits over the past year.
Mostly I went about it all wrong. Blind, really. Choosing because I liked the shape of a plant or sweep of a stem, the height or hue of tiny budding flowers, or the way some clustered as if shouting, “We’re fruitful and multiply.” I rarely read the plastic-card instructions about sunlight and shade. I wanted everything, mixed and matched, and filled every barren, brown gap. When there was no room in the ground, I bought up pots in every size and shape, then asked Frank to install window boxes.
Not all, but an astonishingly large percentage of what I planted took, spread, grew, and bloomed—annuals, perennials, small shrubs, vines, and flowering groundcovers. Our front yard, side yards, the edges of the long driveway, the backyard surrounding the patio, and the entire perimeter of the house all came to life. Where there was soil, I planted.
You can bury a lot of emotion in a patch of dirt.
I didn’t realize it then, but my gardening life was surely fueled by the vague notion that if I could bring a garden to flourishing, maybe I could get something to bloom, and not wither, within. I signed on for a few gardening classes, but mostly there was a kind of gut instinct at work: For each small failure, each barren flowerbed, I was beginning to understand some elemental rhythm—and that sometimes I’d have to work with whatever my soil, sun/shade ratio, budget, and rainfall allowed.
For years, gardening kept me busy, engaged, and lighter.
By my fifth gardening year, Frank walked around the yard patting Sean, our colicky infant son, while I puttered. Gardening became my therapy as I nursed myself through a long case of postpartum depression.
In Year Seven, the garden gave me something quiet and hopeful to do together with our toddling little boy while I recovered from another miscarriage. Year Eight, I needed the sun and sunlight and to keep my hands busy between bouts of all-day sickness as my belly grew again. I taught Sean the names of different flowers and was happy to learn that his favorites, too, were the red and yellow tulips.
“The man who used to live in that house gave me the seeds,” I explained, pointing. I glanced at my thriving boy, splattered in garden dirt, fingernails filthy, smile flashing.
On a glorious Spring day in April of gardening Year Nine, at our big house with two child-occupied bedrooms, my mother was pushing Sean on the backyard swing, as I lay three-month-old Paul in the bassinet on the back porch. Then I stepped out the back door—and fell down the steps to the patio, breaking my left foot and seriously spraining my right ankle.
Frank planted a few flowers with Sean that year, but not many. He had his hands full. By midsummer I was still limping, having trouble getting down and up from the ground or even a gardening stool, and could certainly not chase after my preschooler in the yard. A trip to the grocery store seemed insurmountable. A trip to the nursery, impossible. I decided I would get back to the gardening the following Spring.
The foot and ankle healed but were never the same. Weight gain and a new knee problem made physical aspects of gardening less doable. Graduate school, then returning to work full time, meant smaller slivers of free time. Life went on, so fast that as I pulled in and out of our long driveway, I barely noticed, with each passing year, how colorless our house appeared from the curb.
I kept thinking each year I’d recruit one or the other son, or both, to be my gardening helpers, but each year it didn’t happen. Baseball happened, and soccer; the tennis team, drums, cello, and drama happened; camps and tech programs and Boy Scout trips happened; then girls and cars and college applications.
Still, I thought about gardening again.
Decluttering the basement recently after 28 years in the house, I found photos I’d taken the years I’d encircled the house in swirls of flowers. The next morning, I clipped out a coupon for the local garden center, searched the garage, located the empty pots and flower boxes, and eyed a few weekends on the family calendar when I thought I’d recruit some male muscle. But Sean was heading to an internship 12 hours from home, and Paul was job hunting and hoarding time with friends before they all scattered to far-flung colleges.
Then nature interceded, as every gardener knows it will. That same reproductive system that was once so uncooperative, the one that eventually gave us two strong, tall sons, was on the blink. I needed surgery. And, depending on what they dug out of me, maybe more. My gardening plans, and all my other plans, went back on hold.
Home resting the day after the surgery, I looked out the front window. Around the big sycamore, I could barely make out where I’d once created the two-foot-deep circle bed. The tulips no longer bloom there, and the irises are long gone from the fence bed. In the bed near the front walk, a few perennials still push through, but it’s mostly overgrown. Along the drive, under the shrubs, where years ago I’d grown pink, orange, red, purple and white annuals, were never-removed fall leaves.
I wondered, as I sipped tea and adjusted the heating pad, why I had neglected it all for so long. I wondered if I would ever again get a chance in this life to change something that looked like nothing into something that looked like love.
It all seemed like too much. I pulled the garden center coupon off the kitchen bulletin board and tossed it into the recycling bag.
A few days later, my doctor called: Nothing was growing inside. My husband and I could resume lovemaking. All was well.
That Sunday, on the way out of the grocery store, I stopped to admire the racks of simple potted geraniums and begonias, the hanging baskets of low-maintenance pansies, petunias, impatiens, and hanging vinca. They were common, no-brainer, cookie-cutter flowers, but they were something.
I sent my son to the car with the groceries, grabbed a new cart, and piled in a few of each. ❖