Turning Certainties

To garden or not to garden? A midwinter decision.

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Outside, in the midst of a Massachusetts January, the temperature huddles around twenty degrees. A sprinkling of snow softens the driveway and the rooftops. Inside, I huddle under an afghan on the couch, next to the cat. A cup of black coffee warms my insides.

If the dog days of summer have a counterpart, this is it. The point in winter after the holiday decorations have been put away, but before February’s groundhog has popped up. Sunshine is in short supply, the ground is frozen, and gardening is about as close to my thoughts as a vacation on Mars.

I wouldn’t be thinking about gardening at all if it wasn’t for the catalogs, stacked a foot away from my coffee. Come December, they crowd my mailbox. Buy something once from any of them, and you’re assured a lifetime supply.

Maybe this year I’ll skip it. Maybe this year I’ll let the wheelbarrow rest its back.

They tantalize. They invite. They dare. But every year, in spite of their influence, the same thought crosses my mind. Maybe this year I’ll skip it. Maybe this year I’ll leave the shovels and rakes in the garage. I’ll let the wheelbarrow rest its back.

It wouldn’t be a catastrophic loss. My entire garden measures something close to twelve by fifteen feet. It occupies the only reasonably sunny spot in a yard where shade prefers to linger. Sandy, acidic, and downright anemic soil offers all the nutritional value of a gin and tonic. And in the end the payout for my efforts tallies little more than a dozen or so tomatoes, a pint or two of jalapeños, and just enough squash for a few loaves of zucchini bread.

True, the rabbits would be disappointed, having to seek out clover in the yard instead of helping themselves to my nasturtiums. The hornbeam caterpillars would have to scare someone else. And the neighborhood groundhog would find only crabgrass and nettles. A suitable feast as far as I’m concerned, although it’s become harder to dislike that chubby brown thief since the little girl next door named him Taco.

I’m sure I’m not the only gardener who’s had these conflicted thoughts, but if there’s a time in the year to consider a spring and summer free of sore knees and grimy fingernails, it’s now, when there’s only you and a pile of paper temptations.

Why do we do it? Why do we give up weekends to weed, prune, rake, and wield hoses? What is it about the promise of a well-tended garden that calls to us even in the depths of winter?

“The garden is a domestication of the wild,” wrote Stanley Kunitz, the poet who spent the better part of a century tending words and flowers. Here we can meet nature on something close to neutral terms. Here we can stand in the universe and pour the promise of creation into our palm—a handful of seeds, of hope.

Gardening is an organic alchemy learned when potatoes and beans meant survival, not recreation. It was our turn from the vagaries of hunting and gathering to becoming masters of our own fate. It was the stubborn insistence that we will not go hungry when the sunlight is in short supply and the ground is frozen.

When you put your hands into the earth, you put your hands into history. Dig down and the worms whisper memories of all humankind. But the garden is also a reminder of childhood, one of the few places adults can get their hands really good and filthy—and recall sandboxes and Tonka trucks.

Maybe you’ve had your own brushes with apostasy, couch-bound and cold, recalling toil and failures. Or maybe your faith in cultivation has never wavered. Some receive the glossy pages with unblemished ecstasy, certain of the spring and their need to work in it. Either way, the catalogs arrive. They invite both faithful and uncertain to secret handshakes with the earth, to the comfort of summers that seem to stretch on forever.

Perhaps it is good I do not go to the task too easily. But—and inside I know this—I will. Certainties like soil shepherd us and bring us back to tradition. They return me to that same small patch of earth year after year.

Come spring I will rouse the tools from their slumber. I will clear the debris of autumn and winter. I will poke soft nests into loam and cover seeds in patient comfort. I’ll pour dark pitchers of compost tea, check the fence for dilapidation, and wag my finger at a groundhog named Taco. I will look for the praying mantis swaying amongst the tomato vines. I’ll turn my back on days of short sunlight, when snow was on the rooftops and when my doubt truly was not if I would plant but what I would plant.

I will try my best to contain this wild space. And it will liberate me.


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