I planted my back yard garden in pots this year. This came out of need—out of frustration and despair over the last two seasons’ results. No yield of tomatoes, cucumbers, cantaloupes. I lost everything I planted to pests, rot, fungus, weeds, and disease. Oftentimes, before those menaces could even get a grip, birds pecked holes and ate the flesh and juice.
I’m a Southern girl. I have to plant things in the dirt and watch them grow. I come from a long line of farmers, from my grandfather back. My father, too, had a garden in his town yard, a yard that was once a fertile Mississippi Delta cotton field before it was a neighborhood. My garden area is small—twelve feet wide and three feet deep, in a corner against the wooden fence.
In the past, come spring, I’d pull weeds, hoe and air the dirt, add some new soil. I’d select my varieties, pick some heirlooms, put in a few cool things like broccoli or Brussels sprouts. I’d water, feed, and wait, and by June, tiny vegetables appeared, and then July brought an onslaught of hundred-degree heat. The plants curled, browned, gave in to it. I gave up, too.
I’ve lived in this house for six gardens. Before I got here, the yard was a pasture, prone to weeds, hard to tame. Beneath the bags of garden soil, conditioner, and humus I’d laid out was clay. There was nothing winning about this combination. The plants growing out of it were small, spindly, and sick.
Pots—my last hope. I bought big plastic terra-cotta-colored ones. Real clay pots were too heavy. I lined them up in my garden space and filled them with new dirt. In the first three, tomatoes. Then cantaloupes, cucumbers, squash, and peppers. I tend them daily, water them, help their vines trail safely. I’ve been blessed with the fruits of their growth.
Having a seasonal garden is like watching before your eyes a sped-up version of life. New tender plants are put in their beds. Watered, fed, watched, fussed over, cared for. Their stalks are straight, leaves green, baby fresh, perfect, no flaws, nothing but potential, a blueprint to fulfill and feel out beyond. Then life comes and brings its good and bad. Plants grow and bloom and produce. Nourished by spring’s sun and rain, they flourish. Then it turns on them and beats them down and rots them out. It’s an all-out attack of the elements and the outside forces that begin to suck the marrow out of life. There’s nothing you can do. You can water with a hose, you can put poison out to kill the bugs, you can cut off the sick and dead parts, but it’s not enough, it’s never enough, and you sit and watch the deterioration, and wait for the decline. Until that once strong and happy life succumbs.
And then in winter you sit on your deck and wonder what else you could have done. Or what you could have done differently to make it work, and last. And the answer is, Nothing. Sometimes things are out of your control.
Last summer my friend Nancy gave me some bean seeds to plant. She’d already planted hers along her white picket fence in downtown Franklin. Before the bean pods came, flowering red blooms would appear against the green bean leaves. We’d watch them grow and have fun comparing our bean blooms during our regular get-togethers at Chop House for lunch and poetry and essay reading. Here’s what she said:
“In South Carolina we always grew Scarlett Runner Beans. They can be put on fences, posts, or anything they can climb on, have beautiful red flowers and tons of runner beans. Lots of foliage also. I went to four places here in the Franklin area and none had ever heard of them, so I ordered packs from Burpees. I planted mine along my picket fence and have a packet left. I want you to have them as I know you love flowers, gardens, and anything that is different. So when we meet I’ll bring your packet. They are so easy. Just drop about eight seeds into about a two-inch hole, cover them, and water. Sprouts start showing in about seven days. When the beans appear in about forty days, if you constantly pick them, they are prolific. I am planning on my little white picket fence having bunches of red flowers this summer!”
The vines grew and trailed. I watered, waited, and we took pictures and compared, and finally I saw maybe a dozen beans. I picked them and steamed them with some carrots. I watched for more. Then I got distracted with work, with writing, and I grew tired of waiting. This spring, a year later, I pulled all the twining vines off the poles and fence and found a hundred or more bean pods. They were hidden inside all the foliage, had ripened, and were waiting attention that never came because I wasn’t patient enough to tend them every day.
* * *
It’s been three weeks since Nancy died. I wish I had another Burpees pack, some red blooms twining up my fence, and some bean pods to look for.
I’m reminded that the season of life may be a season, or it may be years and decades, and it’s never enough, and there’s never enough we can do to sustain it. We just need to remember to always put in all we can, to take hold of all the good we can find, and to get out of life and friendship all we can.
It’s already Thursday. Where has the week gone. Monday came after a “chilled” weekend. Friday night I met Nancy at Mellow Mushroom in downtown Franklin for a white pizza and a spinach salad (with hot freshly-sizzled bacon!), and then we sat on a bench in front of the old courthouse on the Square and caught up with all our writing projects. It was a cool fall evening and the Autumn banners on the lightposts added color to the bricked sidewalk. Downtown was alive with people moving about, talking, laughing. A guitarist named Daniel sat with his guitar five feet behind us and sang songs like Amazing Grace, Ain’t No Sunshine When She’s Gone, and Leavin’ on a Jet Plane. Nancy and I tried to sing along and keep our minds on our conversation at the same time. We talked of our writing of true stories about our ancestors — and writing honest to include the harsh details of the times in which we grew up. Nancy was a small child during WWII and remembers when her father was off at sea as part of the fighting effort. I am a baby boomer, born several years after the war ended and my coming of age aligned with the struggles of the Sixties.
Saturday morning I drove into Nashville for a full-body massage. It was a birthday gift from my sons, and it was a first for me. I had visions of getting my upper back worked on for a whole hour, but this included everything down to the fingers and toes. And face. Why did I put make-up on? She smoothed oil onto my cheeks and massaged it in. I was so mellow that I got lost driving home. Missed Franklin Road, missed Granny White Pike. I spent the rest of the day drinking water and resting and moving slowly, a smile across my face.
Wednesday brought rain — much needed rain to Middle Tennessee. Looking out the glass wall of my third-floor office building at the hills of Brentwood, I saw fall taking shape. Clouds hung low and mist covered the patchwork of color as the trees begin their annual process of going from green to yellow and orange. It’s my favorite time of year, but it is bittersweet this year, as the world of coolness and the lulling of yellow drifting leaves makes me think of curling up close to someone and drinking apple cider or taking a long romantic drive through the countryside. But that won’t be happening.
So it’s onward and forward to the Southern Festival of Books. You know October has sunken in good when downtown Nashville comes alive with hundreds of authors and thousands of books in Legislative Plaza. I’ll be there in Booth #2. Stop by!
I suspect I’ll be going from mellowed out to fired up. I hope so.