In grade school my family made yearly summer vacations to visit our family in Iowa. I remember going out into the backyard garden with my Grandpa Leo. The dew still on the tomatoes and lettuce, we’d search for the perfect peas and the ripened tomatoes for the evening’s salad. We’d pluck carrots from the ground and he’d whistle and say how perfect they were. I can still picture the khaki fedora hat perched on his head and way his eyes would grow big when we found the perfect radish.
There was something honest and simple about that garden. It felt wholesome and productive to gather all those vegetables in the early morning and then share them that evening with family around a picnic table next to the Des Moines River. Up by the house Grandma had hostas and iris and a bed of yellow roses she called her “Anita” roses after my mother. She tucked antique sinks and sculptures and birdhouses in between the gorgeous blooms. The whole backyard was a work of art. I have many photos tucked away of her garden. I knew even at a very young age that someday I wanted to have a little plot of land like that. I wanted to plant and arrange and tend and decorate. I wanted to make a salad that I had grown myself.
And so in our backyard, about the same size as my grandparent’s plot that I remember from all those years ago, you’ll often find me puttering in the early morning and late evenings.
I have planted daisies and jasmine, roses and hydrangeas in my yard for more than fifteen years. I add herbs and lavender in early spring, cutting and drying them to add to recipes. The garden is a place of therapy for me. It’s exercise: the pulling, the planting, the rearranging, the pruning. I’ve learned so much by digging in the soil.
Here are just eight things my garden spot has taught me:
- Harsh pruning is necessary. Sometimes you’ll think that beauty will never come back from all snipping. But when the roses bloom in early May you’ll realize it wasn’t so cruel after all. Life is like this, too. The painful parts can feel unbearable, but often they are shaping our faith to be stronger.
- You’ll pull up the same weed up year after year. There is a thorny vine that wraps itself around my rose bushes every. Single. Year. It’s sharp and quick-growing and often shoots up in early March. In the last couple of years I’ve come to expect it, and I’m prepared to tackle it. I’ve discovered that the roots are shallow and if I’m careful, wearing gloves, I can get the whole thing in one good yank. Its tendrils will come back in a few weeks and I’ll repeat the process. I’ve come to understand that the “weeds” in our lives are similar: thorny, familiar sins or temptations. It takes a consistent plan to tackle them: staying in the Word, Christian music, daily reminders to keep those weeds at bay. And as we age we begin to recognize them more clearly and learn to deal with them before they have choked out our lives.
- Something unexpected will survive the winter. This year it was a geranium in the window box. Geraniums are annuals and their season is supposed to be short. Isn’t that just like hope in our lives? Sometimes we are certain something is dead: a dream, a passion or a relationship and there it goes- coming back to life. Look for and expect miracles.
- Tiny seeds can reap huge beauty. I planted miniscule wildflower seeds in an egg carton back in February. A little sprinkle of water daily along with large doses of sunshine through my kitchen window, they sprouted and began to grow along my windowsill. They have just become strong enough to be moved outside to thrive. Never underestimate the power of planting a small seed in your own life or in the life of another- these small offerings can bloom into strong and beautiful things. And remember what Jesus said about the mustard seed? Just do the next right thing, however small.
- Paying attention is important. You can miss a lot of things if you don’t pay attention to detail. A weed can sprout up and choke a whole patch of daisies, or the first spray of lavender can bloom and you won’t notice unless you are looking. Gardening, like life, means paying being present, noticing. The same is true in our lives: a deep breath and taking a good hard look around can do wonders for perspective.
- I’ve learned patience: It can take years to see results. I planted a crepe myrtle tree twelve years ago. It was nothing but a skinny stick. Today it stands strong and holds two birdfeeders, the breadth of its branches becoming a home for bird nests. Each season I watch it transform. The process of growth has been slow but I smile knowing that I’ve watched that tree grow up over the years. The pink flowing myrtle reminds me to be patient in my life, too. Most good things happen over time, not overnight.
- A dormant season is necessary. Yes, it’s beautiful to watch all the blooms come to life in early spring. The smell of jasmine fills the air and I pick roses and daisies to arrange in mason jars. But spring is not a stand-alone season. There is a great deal of work that is done in the dormancy, quiet, and stillness of winter. I need to remember this in my own life: sometimes stillness and rest is what’s needed for the next season to fully bloom.
- If things don’t’ bloom where they are initially planted, you can move them. I learned this from my grandmother. She would plant a new flower where she thought it would look best in the garden. I asked her once “what if it doesn’t like it there?” Her response stuck with me: “That’s the beautiful thing about gardening, you can just dig it up and move it.” I think we forget this sometimes in our own lives. We don’t have to stay the same: sometimes we’ll bloom somewhere new- not always a physical or geographic move, but more often a shift in our thinking, a new friend, a new routine that brings us to life. We need to notice where we are thriving and what makes us wither, giving more energy to those things that nourish us.
When God placed his human creation in a garden he may have been providing us with more than just a beautiful setting. What a gorgeous reminder and metaphor for creativity, and the knowledge that God gave us everything we would need to care for ourselves. There were lessons there. All for the taking.