15 Summers in the Garden

This summer marks my fifteenth garden.

To be specific, it’s been fifteen years since my new neighbor asked, “Want to share a garden?” Without his urging and faithful spring tilling there is absolutely no way I would have found the inspiration or time. I’m so grateful.


The garden has become connective tissue between life’s seasons. The ever-present backdrop at the edge of our yard bordering the now overgrown trees. 


Sleeping in winter. Bustling in spring. Overflowing in summer. Retreating under soft autumn leaves. The garden is always there. And I’m the lucky tender who’s learned a few things.


Beginnings are important.

The unofficial start to growing season is Mother’s Day. That’s when the planting engines begin at local farmstands and the big box stores. My experience? That’s too early.


Instead, I’m usually found planting alongside my neighbor during the last week in May. By then spring has done its thing, warming and soaking the soil. Summer is within whiff.


Then comes the really important factor: what happens in the two weeks after the plants go into the ground. Too much sun and the tomatoes are in heaven, but the zinnias and cucumbers suffer. Non-stop rain for days and even the most moisture friendly varieties are a soggy maudlin mess.  


The beginning is the foundation for the entire growing season. But it’s also a fleeting stage. Two to three weeks after planting it’s hard to remember the garden looking so organized. That’s when the weeds move in.


Weeds are complicated.

It’s easy to think of weeds as a straightforward assignment. An element that the gardener can control unlike the weather or when the tomato blight rolls in. They need to go! Now!


Truth is, I’ve ruined many a budding plant in the pursuit of weedlessness. In the early days especially, it’s not easy to tell the weed from the sprout. Weeds grow alongside the crop.


By the time the plant is established and pruned and staked, weeds are easier to spot but their roots run deep. One hearty tug can irreversibly disrupt the productive growth around it. But let them run roughshod and they'll take over. 

Luckily in moderation, they're mostly harmless.  


Some crops are too prolific. 

Once you plant a zucchini or pumpkin plant…there is no going back. They take over from the very beginning and long after their fruit is done.


In the early years, these varieties provided me with a certain confidence. Look, the zucchini is growing! Doesn’t that mint smell good?


But mint that I planted five years ago along the side of my garage is still flourishing. Despite yanking it over and over, it remains. We’ve enjoyed loads of iced mint tea over the many summers, and so its presence is not all bad. But make no mistake—the mint is in charge.

These crops are like extended family. They’re always there. When you need them and when you don’t. The trick is to draw effective boundaries and if that doesn’t work...who doesn’t love zucchini bread? 

All seasons are not created equal.

Each year is different and not all are victorious.


There was the summer that none of my peppers grew and most of the tomato plants caught the blight. Another year, life’s obligations took precedence over pruning and the weeds took over. I gave up on the garden that year. 


But most years there is magic to be found. Such was the summer of 2021. That year I decided to mix things up. The world had fallen apart. Nothing was normal—why do the same old thing in the garden? 


So, for the first time, I dedicated half of the garden to cut flowers, the kind that grow back after you pick them for bouquets. I looked on in awe as the pops of color started to explode in early July. 


Then as the tomatoes and flowers reached full crescendo, I got covid. I was the kind of sick that made a trip to the garden about as likely as a European vacation. 


But thanks to the garden, the most glorious thing happened. As my amazing friends began dropping off support in the form of food and supplements and even an oximeter (that kindness I’ll never forget), we left a pair of scissors along with a note in the designated drop-off spot. It read: Help yourself to tomatoes and flowers!  


What followed turned out to be the best medicine a girl could ask for. Thank you texts and pictures poured in. Flowers on mantles and tables. Tomatoes transformed into sauces and salads. It was pure joy. And quite simply the most organic way to feel connected while not leaving my bedroom for two weeks. 


That’s how it is, in the garden. 

Each summer starts out with hope. Some years reap abundance beyond expectation. Others are a weedy mess. But all summers, in the garden, are a gift.


As Audrey Hepburn once said, “To plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow.”


And I do believe. One tomato plant at a time.