I’ve had more than a few surprises in my gardening experience, as I’m sure you have. There was the time I found a family of rabbits living in some weeds near my garage, and while I know rabbits will potentially wreak havoc on my garden, there’s not much cuter in the animal kingdom than a baby rabbit. Then there was the first hummingbird of the season, hovering quietly in a newly planted patch of Cardinal flowers. I find that my joy of gardening grows each time one of these unexpected experiences comes along.
Sometimes, though, the joy of gardening comes to us seemingly out of nowhere. A gorgeous flower pops up in the middle of our herb garden, or we discover that the garlic we forgot planting is now sprouting. In fact, it’s the forgetting that can be the most rewarding at times. It’s like a gift we’ve given to ourselves. We lovingly tend to our seeds and seedlings, then get distracted or occupied with other tasks.
This is what happened in the story, To the Celery in My Life. Writer Aileen Jones-Monahan is unabashed in her love of the crunchy vegetable stalks. But things don’t go quite to plan and her efforts seem like they will be for nothing. She may not be able to enjoy “absent-mindedly crunching through stalk after stalk as I sat in my reading chair with my feet up on the armrest, the strings catching in my teeth.” Or will she?
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This story comes from our archive that spans over 30 years and includes more than 130 magazine issues of GreenPrints. Pieces like these that turn the joy of gardening into everyday life lessons always brighten up my day, and I hope this story does for you as well. Enjoy!
To the Celery in My Life
A tale of love and patience.
By Aileen Jones-Monahan
In February I set a tray of soil on an old bathmat on the floor of my office and planted a line of tiny celery seeds. I gave the soil a pat as I stood up, switching on the shop light I’d finally figured out how to suspend a few inches above the dirt (by looping chains around the pole of a garden rake—the handle resting on a bookshelf and the metal tines flat on my desk, weighted down with my most beloved of books: the complete works of Harry Potter in German).
Celery! Held down at one end of the cutting board, you can chop the length of it in a flash, feeling yourself, for a moment, good with a knife. And those curly leaves! Floating on top of a soup, or chopped into lentils and fried up for falafel! And I would eat it raw, too, absent-mindedly crunching through stalk after stalk as I sat in my reading chair with my feet up on the armrest, the strings catching in my teeth.
This was my plan. Every day I peeled back the plastic wrap stretched over the seed tray and peered at the dirt. I kept my expression curious and nonjudgmental. Just taking a look! Sometimes I hummed a little. Whistling was even more casual, as if I just happened by, kicking road stones—no pressure!—but I’ve never been able to whistle gently, so I kept blowing the plastic wrap over on itself, never to be flattened again no matter how long I fiddled with it while calling “Just a moment!” to my son, who wanted help reconnecting the Internet, and who kept saying, to no one in particular, that we should just buy celery from the store for two dollars.
I felt the warming pad. Still warm. I felt the soil. Just moist enough. I tried to distract myself by planting three full trays of onion seeds—all of which would grow hearty and strong, and take over my garden, some swelling to the size of a baby’s head. They’d end up in crates on the basement stairs, where the sight of them would give me a little nudge of happiness every time I went down there, arms full of laundry.
After a month or so—Can that be right?—I noticed a little green something in the corner of the celery tray. What was it? I got right down near the dirt and squinted. Was it a tiny bit of fuzz from a green sweater? Was it part of a broken seed bead? I couldn’t be sure. After a week or so, I gave the green speck some fish emulsion, and although I wouldn’t bet money on it, I thought it grew a little. It could be a full seed bead now! Was it? I couldn’t be sure, and my son refused to let me borrow his magnifying glass, saying he “needed it for a project” (lost it in the grass behind the garage).
Then a mouse snuck into the office one night and ate the leaves off all of the broccoli and cabbage seedlings, leaving neat rows of stems behind. I surveyed them coolly, like a schoolteacher who’d expected better, and then rushed to check on the green speck, dropping to my knees before the tray. It was untouched! Relieved, I fit a heavy glass cake saver over it, re-planted the cabbage and broccoli seeds, and stuffed a sock in a hole I discovered in the baseboard. The mouse didn’t return. But I thought of him sometimes, a little fondly, I admit. I was proud of him for eating his vegetables, and if he was the same mouse who’d eaten that entire package of flax seeds, I knew he must be pretty smart. I wondered if I would see him someday, pedaling by on a unicycle he’d invented from paperclips and rubber bands.
Then one day, I noticed a little leaf emerging from the speck—and it was unmistakably a celery leaf. I felt good all day. I sang in the shower, I wiped down the counters after loading the dishwasher, and I stood for a moment in front of my garden, the garlic shoots just beginning to push through. I closed my eyes and smiled up at the sun, which was strong enough now to warm the front of my jacket. There was a hint of thawed dirt in the air, and I breathed it in deeply, hoping, as I do each Spring, I will still be able to smell it in a month, and knowing that I won’t—that this is the moment to stand still and smell it, really smell it. So I do.
And then the garden takes over. The lettuce bolts and both pairs of gloves get holes in the index fingers, and the wasps that fly around the oregano bush arrive, their shiny blue-and-black bodies long and scary looking, but they are as polite as ever, flying off together whenever I come near, and then: I remember the celery.
How could I have forgotten it? I panic for a moment, but when I pull back a bunch of kale I find it, now almost five inches tall and bushy, with a spray of sturdy little stalks the diameter of matchsticks. I take off my gloves to touch it with a bare finger, and smile, delighted. It has been growing for six months! I snap off a tiny stalk and eat it—not absent-mindedly in my reading chair as I had intended—but there in the garden, and slowly. It is gone in just a few bites, and it is unmistakably celery. ❖
By Aileen Jones-Monahan, published originally in 2016, in GreenPrints Issue #106. Illustrated by P. Savage
Do you feel the joy of gardening more from the unexpected or just the magic of it all? Share your thoughts in the comments!