Growing up in the Midwest, our summer days had a fairly predictable schedule. Cereal for breakfast, make your bed and pick up your room, then outside. To us five kids that was freedom, pretty sure it was for my mom too. Of course we couldn’t play in the yard until the dew was off the grass. I don’t recall the reason – either it wasn’t good for the grass or it wasn’t good for our sneakers. The dew was beautiful. Large lazy drops on the tips of every blade of grass that sparkled in the rising sun like a field of diamonds. But the dew was in the way of play.
While we were waiting for the dew to dry, we could do our weeding in the garden. That was the big summer chore, important because it was food for the table. Better to get it over with early in the day than have it get in the way of something fun later. We lived on about two acres of which about half was always a garden running just slightly downhill from the top of the property towards the street. In late spring, a grizzled farmer from down the street would bring his tractor and plow the garden. It’s metal blades would cut into the ground tight from winter’s frost, carving and turning it until it awakened to the possibility of becoming rows of corn, beans and potatoes.
Before any rows could be cut into the soil, my parents would diagram on paper what seeds went where and see what we could afford to add or had to remove from the plan. There was some suspicion that, like the farm families from whom they were descended, they had five kids so that there were plenty of hands to help with the work. Whether or not that was good planning on their part, could be debated.
We kids would rake through the topsoil and look for rocks that had risen up through the ground under the snow. I never understood how more rocks could appear every year unless the rocks were just a little bit alive and moving around under the ground. Big and small, the stones would have to be gathered and added to the pile at the top of the garden so that they would not cause damage to the rototiller later.
I enjoyed weeding. Okay, I didn’t enjoy how horribly dry my hands felt after. Or how it caused my nails to split and crack. But there was something about pulling the weeds and loosening the earth to allow the small sprouts to grow larger and the vegetables to appear, that always made me feel closer to God than going to church. The earth into which I sunk my hands was warm and comforting and it was more peaceful in the garden than in church – all those people talking out of both sides of their mouths.
Tomatoes were always at the top of the garden. The plan always kept them closer so that it was less effort to drag five gallon buckets of water over and water each scrawny stalk twice a day. They always seemed in need of more attention, more care. They are like first born children. You aren’t so sure what to do, so a parent keeps them close, smothers them with attention. The tomatoes would need to be watched carefully and gently attached to stakes, supporting them as they grew.
The corn, beans and potatoes would be in the middle area of the long garden that edged the drive way. They didn’t need constant attention, though the corn and potatoes would need to be hilled. Pulling the dirt up on both sides of the corn stalks kept them from falling in a heavy wind or hard rain. The potatoes were hilled because…to be honest I don’t know why they were hilled. Perhaps to offer them more cover, like a security blanket keeping them protected from the hot sun and safe from birds until they were ready for us to dig them up. Hilling did not require a lot of skill or precision.
Rows of corn, usually the white and yellow kernel corn, we called “Bread and Butter” were usually along far edge creating a wall to the neighbors. Some years a row would be spared from vegetables we would be canning for winter and used instead to grow Indian Corn. (for the politically correct, I think it is now known as ornamental corn). It was magical to me how each individual kernel was painted like a beautiful sunset in amazing colors. We would wait until ears of it had dried and pop off the kernels. With a huge needle and strong cord, thread the kernels onto a necklaces or bracelets.
These middle children grew well with moderate attention and some necessary support.
At the foot of the garden, the lowest level, were the long viny veggies, cucumbers, pumpkins, goards. They didn’t need or get much attention. Once in a while someone would rearrange which direction their tendrils were reaching towards to keep them from harm or near refreshment. They were best grown there at the bottom out of sight because they needed the water that would run downhill to them and lay in that area. It was a sort of accidental parenting that the youngest get – not a lot of attention, but they are kept from harm. Free to reach, free to stretch.
In addition to being closer to God, I always found weeding a thoughtful time – fairly routine, so part of my mind could wander. The biggest drawback to me was the I could not read at the same time. If I hadn’t been too afraid to be caught or rather punished, I would have smuggled a book out with me and sat under the sprawling branches of the maple tree in the back yard and read the whole morning. But I was too afraid to break a rule. So I worked and I told myself stories in my head, entertaining myself while sunburn spread across the back of my neck.
At the time I didn’t realize that probably the most telling thing about me and enjoying this chore, was that it was an activity that appealed to my sense of order. Each row had a definite start point and end point. It was clear. No gray areas. No questions.
I saw that on a headstone once. I didn’t know the person, so I have no idea how accurate it was a description of him, but on his headstone it read, “He didn’t live in the gray areas.” It occurred to me at the time, I didn’t either. It also occurred to me at the time that it wasn’t a terribly flattering thing to put on a headstone.
In a garden there were few gray areas with regard to its care. You select the things you want to grow and you plant them in the spots they are most likely to thrive. You water them and hope, hope they will sprout and grow. You water and weed and give them room and you hope, hope for enough sunshine and warmth. You wait and you watch and later you harvest. What is a successful harvest?
Is it enough food for the winter? Is it the process of planting, nurturing, guiding and growth.