After the heartbreak of last summer’s drought, I let it be known far and wide that I had officially become a three-season gardener: winter, spring and fall. After all, I reasoned, there are plenty of things that can be grown in the South over the winter; plenty of things that need a good dose of the best cold we’ve got to give. Plants and seeds that love to be tucked into a good leaf-mulched October bed for a long winter’s nap; sturdy little lettuces and cabbages that toss their green heads at January’s worst.
It was easy to say that in August, when everything was dead or dying and the refreshing bloom of autumn’s bright color had not yet awakened the tired and dusty world. “Maybe a few tomato plants,” I told my friends, because how could I ever do without a basket of home-grown tomatoes on my kitchen counter all summer? But for the rest it was cool season crops: the very name sounded like water to my parched soul. A few zinnias and cosmos for good measure. But I just didn’t have it in me to battle the heat and the drought and the squash vine borers and the Japanese beetles and the mosquitoes and the unidentifiable spiky-backed black and red things that seem to live for sweet peas that mean gardening in the South in the summer.
Or so I thought.
But being outside so much with the animals and in the barn has made me a little sturdier, as well, I guess. I don’t quail as I once would over tramping outside in a frosty dawn with my Wellies and the chunky wool sweater I bought in the Lake District eleven years ago (and which always seemed such an overkill for my mild little winter insulation in the house). A driving rain is no longer an excuse to stay in, for the sheep must be let out and the chickens fed whether it’s pouring outside or not. (The goats, for the record, would much rather sleep in of a rainy morning, curled up together on their green blanket in their stall. But with the instantly-cozy sound of rain drumming on that tin roof, who can blame them?)
So the ‘elements’ have become rather more friendly acquaintances than foes to be avoided. And spending half my time out of doors has given me a much keener appreciation of the seasons, and all the gentle undulations of change and renewal within them. No matter how busy the days become, there is always that early morning ramble across the pasture with the sheep and goats in which daily developments of leaf and bud and blade are scrutinized and appreciated. Never before has the re-emergence of the fescue grasses been such a matter of rejoicing, or the tender new growth and fragrant white fountains of the dog roses been greeted with such wholesale delight. Puck and Pansy would rather eat them, of course, and would surely tell me that I am missing out on a greatly-anticipated seasonal delicacy. But I much prefer to merely drink in their scent on a dew-wet May morning.
And so all of the color and perfume abroad have quickened a yearly madness in me, and I have fallen prey to the raptures of antique roses in full bloom and the enticements of an awakened flower garden. So many of last summer’s seemingly failed attempts have plucked up the courage to give it another go, and so have I. I guess I am such an incurable gardener that even the all-too-vivid memory of August’s ruin is a thing to be scoffed at in this triumphantly leaf-bright world. The peach trees, which I ran out of time to prune properly, have more peaches than ever. (Now, if I can just keep the squirrels away!) The aforementioned roses, which now comprise the sacred precincts of the bee yard and which received nothing more than a good barnyard mulch—compliments of the sheep and goats—are at their loveliest. And the potatoes, which I thought killed off by a late frost, are all beginning to flower, and there are dozens of little round red ones under their blanket of hay—I peeked.
My proclaimed summer tomatoes have become eleven in all. And they have grown to include peppers. And eggplant and zucchini and cucumbers and pole beans and arugula. And squash, of course. (My one consolation in that never-ending battle is that there won’t be squash vine borers in heaven.) I also planted the seeds of a lovely vine called Queen Anne’s Pocket, an heirloom melon that my sister-in-law gave me and which is reportedly so fragrant that Victorian women used to carry them as a form of perfume. There were two herb beds that were just asking to be replanted, as well. And I just had to add some more bee balm to the flower garden. Of course. For the girls.
So it looks like I have a summer garden, after all. And if the weather continues its merciful pattern of rain, I expect more of a jungle to contend with than a desert wasteland. Which is fine with me—I’ll take on mildew any day over a frizzling heat. It broke my heart last summer to see my gorgeous summer phlox hang their blossom-crowned heads and give up in despair. Even the notoriously dominant four o’clocks cringed and held their places in the garden as if marshaling their reserves.
I was walking in my friend’s garden the other day, greeting her flowers with her and being introduced to some new additions in a spring twilight so fair and fresh it made the heat of summer seem nothing short of implausible. And yet we moaned over it a bit, anticipated a few disasters. Worried over watering restrictions or the inverse of mildew and slugs. But we both spoke with such a quiet joy, bending over a full-blown peony or expounding upon the merits of a Graham Thomas rose. “Aren’t they sweet?” she said, with a loving look at the tall spikes of delphinium flanking her arbor. “We’re just trying to enjoy our garden this year, not stress out about what makes it and what doesn’t make it. That’s all we can do, you know.” She looked at me intently with eyes as blue as the flowers we had just been admiring. “God wants us to enjoy our gardens, Lanier.”
Such simple words. And yet, it’s the simple things that are the most profound in the end. I have thought of this so many times the past few days, as I have nestled plants into the ground with a hope and a prayer, drawing the mulch back up around them like a mother tucking in her children. She was so right, poignantly, penetratingly so. My garden is a place where I can commune with God with a mind unencumbered with less fundamental things. I can partner with Him in the joy of creation and enjoy the two-fold fruits of beauty and sustenance. I can literally read the parables of life before me in these dying seeds and growing things.
It is a gorgeous privilege to grow a garden, and I would not be complete without it. Even the discouraging parts. God knows that, thanks be to Him, and reminded me of it in time to get my summer garden in. And come July, when hope starts to droop a little bit, I imagine He’ll remind me of leeks and cabbages and lettuce and carrots. For I fear I have not become the three-season gardener that I pronounced myself last fall. I’m a year-round gardener. And a hopelessly optimistic one, at that.
My garden is a lovesome thing—God wot!
The veriest school
of peace; and yet the fool
contends that God is not.—
Not God in gardens! When the eve
Nay, but I have a sign!
‘Tis very sure God walks in mine.
Thomas Edward Brown