Garden Envy

“Mary, Mary quite contrary how does your garden grow?”

I find myself asking this question quite often. It is not Mary whom I ask, instead it is a friend or a neighbor or even a stranger who is reading a gardening magazine in Borders.  I find myself gazing enviously toward other’s gardens, taking visual stock of the size and girth of their plants, the variety of their vegetables, as well as the tools at their disposal. For instance, while scrutinizing one garden I noticed a black cloth spread pulled over the whole bed with holes for each of the plants. I panicked. The tender of the garden was not available for questioning, so I did what anyone with garden envy might do: accosted her young son.

“Why does your mom have a cover on the garden?”

He shrugged.

“Is it like a cover for the pool? Does it keep the plants warm? There’s not going to be a June frost, is there? Or is it for the bugs?” My maniacal line of questioning clearly dumbfounded the boy, who gave me another shrug.

I often  seek information that might help my garden live long and prosper. Early in the summer, I noticed my friend Carl, feeding his plants organic plant food. His garden is perhaps the one I envy most for its raised rectangular beds and beautiful mulch that blanket the soil, as well as its resplendence with a variety of vegetables and lovely marigolds lining the corners.

“Should I be doing that?” I asked him pointing to the organic feed, key in other hand, ready to bolt for the nursery.

“Can’t hurt,” he replied. “Or you can use your own compost.”

My own compost consists of banana peels I save and bury in the soil as well as shells from the hard boiled eggs I cook and force feed my toddler so that my garden can be properly nourished.  I headed for the nursery.

Perusing gardening magazines does nothing to quell my anxiety. I read about how to attract “good bugs” to my garden, ones that will help keep “bad bugs” from destroying my crops. I wouldn’t know a good bug from a bad bug if it bit me on the buttocks, which I suspect they often do.  Once, my daughter mentioned that her teacher asked her to collect some lady bugs that had invaded the class so that she might use them to help her tomatoes.  Lady bugs and tomatoes was news to me, so I spent that afternoon with a magnifying glass and my daughter’s bug collection kit combing the yard for mobile red and black dots, but found none. I thought about e-mailing Julia’s teacher to ask if she could spare a few from her classroom, but decided to spare the little guys the bus ride home.

Bugs and soil, soil and bugs.  I need to understand why I have cultivated an interest in agriculture that has caused me more consternation than joy.  I never had a green thumb. I don’t recall participating in my mother’s garden as a child, either. I have a vivid recollection of her flowers—mostly yellow and red tulips- that lined the hillside of our front yard. I remember the compliments she got on her garden, too. Perhaps I am searching for some positive reinforcement about my lovely landscaping or zesty zucchini. I also remember her mint leaves. I just cut my first leaves yesterday and my nostrils inhaled the smell of summer nights on my back patio with burgers and mint laced iced tea.  So perhaps the garden is a way to re-connect with the simplicity of summers long gone, when, without a fear of skitters bearing West Nile and ticks carrying Lyme, we lived out of doors.

Maybe it is nostalgia  that propels me as I try to re-create childhood memories for my own offspring. But why not flowers? Why do I bother with a vegetable garden when I don’t particularly like vegetables? There is something to the adage that it tastes better if you grow it yourself. The vegetables may not please my palate (I haven’t figured out how to turn the mint leaves into mint ice cream) but they do please my olfactory senses. The smell of the cucumbers significantly increase the likelihood that I will try them, add them to my salad or even comb the internet for some interesting recipes with my garden’s bounty as its centerpiece. So maybe I can conclude that my garden is a way to encourage myself to enjoy better health as I decorate my dinner plate with the fruits (no pun intended) of my labor.

But I don’t think so. I want to be healthy, but physical health is only important if one is mentally healthy. And garden envy simply does not promote my mental well being. This was again brought to my attention as I visited Carl’s garden later in the season, now so green and verdant that I imagined the only way to move through it was to hack away at the plants with a machete. Violent thoughts about vegetables can not be productive. And worse, I spent the next few days standing over my own garden trying to ascertain which leaves were droopy, and which ones had a shot at success. I briefly considered plantacide, and came close to pulling out the tomato plant that leaned conspicuously to one side. I might have pulled the trigger if my daughter hadn’t shrieked, “What are you doing?” What kind of a role model would I be if I murdered an innocent tomato plant, and what message would it send to my children if I gave up so easily on a budding life?

But the lesson is clear: my garden is driving me to the brink. My self esteem is buried deep beneath the soil of my meager garden beds. I should dig up my fragile ego, and tend to my sense of worth with a hobby that will celebrate my strengths. More than one friend has described her garden as better than therapy. While my garden is less likely to be therapy and more likely to land me in therapy, I continue to strive for that feeling of Zen that comes with weeding and watering. It should be obvious to the reader by now that Zen has so completely eluded me, not just with regards to gardening but in every aspect of my existence. Siddhartha Gautama, the man responsible for Zen and Buddhism, in the third of his four noble truths, teaches that “suffering can be overcome if we let go of our desires.” Unfortunately, my desire to grow a green thumb has significantly reduced the likelihood of my ever attaining Nirvana.

Yet, I consider the Buddha’s second noble truth, that to “live means to suffer” an indication that perhaps I should keep going. My garden has certainly made me suffer; it reinforces my perceived shortcomings and plummets myself esteem. For example, like my impatiens- the only flowers I dare to grow-I lack patience. Not a good quality for a gardener. Planning a garden is crucial to its success. The skilled planter knows what herbs and vegetables to place in her garden, and how far apart to plant them. She knows which plants are good neighbors, and which plants should be separated. She likely even designs the garden on a grid before planting. Not me. My zucchini has cast a long shadow on my celery which is not even supposed to be planted in soil like mine, and my cucumbers were put in the middle of the bed with no fence or stake to twine their way around. And who knows if it is even is a cucumber plant because I didn’t take the time to prepare the grid! Maybe that is why I have produced no more than two tomatoes, arguably the easiest crop to grow.

Each day, though, even the ones where I don’t have the strength to pull out the hose; I am faithful enough to check both beds for some sign that I will have a salad with dinner. I did manage to eek out a cucumber salad, and there was one red pepper to shave atop my greens. As for the eggplant and the corn, well, there is always next year. And when I contemplate potential improvements for next summer’s garden, I think of Buddha’s other teaching: the Eightfold Path. Buddhism teaches that by following the Eightfold Path an individual can be mentally rehabilited and freed from delusions and suffering.  My garden needs rehabilitation, and I need to free myself from suffering. As for delusions, it is clear that I need to let go of those, too. Lady bugs on school busses and machetes hacking through gardens quite possibly signify the kind of therapy that does not include trips to the nursery. I imagine through this therapy I will be told to accept my shortcomings, and plant grass or at least some fool proof flowers where my vegetables now suffer.

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Published in: on August 5, 2010 at 6:33 pm  Leave a Comment  

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