May in the garden

Years ago I knew a guy who was so adept at gardening that he could have made a sidewalk bloom. In essence he did make a sidewalk bloom. He started a raised bed vegetable garden outside a homeless shelter in the urban blight portion of a small Midwestern city. The garden thrived.

I was in awe of his touch, his tender way of coaxing plants to settle in and grow lush. And it wasn’t just his genius with plants that made me sit up and take note. The transformation that the plants created in him was the more startling.

He was small and elfish, a person who, in winter, paled and shriveled. We all go through a diminishment in winter, but the change in him was so dramatic you could see it happening before your eyes. I think he probably dealt with low moods in the off-season. He was a shadow of himself.

Come spring, the process reversed. His vitality returned. The primary cause wasn’t that he was eating fresh produce, although that probably didn’t hurt. He simply had to have his hands in the soil in order to live. He needed to look into the faces of plants, care for them, and see them respond. He wasn’t that far from being a plant himself.

I thought of him again this spring as I started my own garden. I’ve been out there with my shovel, turning and amending the soil. This year I got going earlier than usual. I have young kale plants settling in: some of these I started myself indoors from seed, and others I purchased. I’ve got little baby snow peas, lettuce, and broccoli rabe coming up.

Though it is only mid-May, the garden has already offered joy and sadness, its regular mix. On the up side, my trillium is in bloom. Every year when it comes up I think of the importance of patience. We got the plant as a wedding gift in 2000, and something like seven years passed before it produced a flower. But over the years the one stem has become a clump, and right now it is covered with flowers and buds. I count fifteen.

I like the definition of “trillium” in my dictionary. It is a plant: “having a whorl of three leaves, from the center of which rises a solitary flower.” The sentence itself uses the leaves as a base, and presents the flower as a thing extending out of that base. The dictionary doesn’t mention that the flower, too, is tri. It has three large petals.

The trillium likes rich woods. If you are ever on your way north on Highway 169 in May, you must stop at the wayside rest between here and Lake Mille Lacs. If the timing is right, you will see there white blossoms running off into the woods in every direction, trillium too numerous to count, the idea of exuberance brought impressively to life.

Another joy from my garden: as I pruned our black current bush this morning, the fruity, astringent smell of currents rose up and found my nose. A revelation, that the canes would smell like the berries.

Now for the garden sorrows: I recently found the carcass of a baby bunny by the side fence. Then it disappeared, probably scavenged by a hawk or other marauding critter. One day I noticed an aqua bird’s egg lying on our path. It had just suddenly appeared there. A nest robber (blue jay?) must have flown over and dropped it. I picked it up gingerly, but the bottom side had smashed and the eggy mess was oozing out. One day I watch a red-bellied woodpecker enter a cavity in a big tree in our side yard. I was excited to think it might nest there. Then a knot of angry, noisy English sparrows rushed in and chased it away.

The down side of life in the yard doesn’t throw me. I accept that there will be good and bad surprises. My husband is more of a softie. I don’t prune anything, or dig up and discard anything, when he is around. It pains him. He likes to say, “Nature is a rough business.” Stuff dies, reminding us that we will die one day, too.

I love the type of tasks involved in gardening and the rhythm required to perform them. My Irish great great grandparents farmed just south of St. Paul, and I wonder if an affinity for this kind of work is encoded in my genes. Working outside pleases me. Using hand tools feels just right. I like stepping out into the garden, looking around, and deciding with my whole being what, in that particular moment, needs doing.

Mary Jean Port writes at home, near Minnehaha Creek and Lake Harriet, and teaches at the Loft Literary Center.