Occasionally you overhear conversations involving some aspect of your life when those doing the talking have no idea you are listening. These normally cause distress and, of course, that’s why they are meant to take place out of earshot. On one such occasion, however, rather than being bedeviled I was greatly blessed by a bit of accidental eavesdropping. The event remains one that brightens my day every time it comes to mind.
I was at a juncture in my life during which, as a recently minted Ph.D. in history, I was struggling mightily to balance a full college teaching schedule, find publishers interested in my scholarly work, meet the demands of recent parenthood, manage a tight family budget, and conquer other challenges. Collectively these produced an appreciable level of pressure on someone whose “raising” included a deeply embedded Protestant work ethic. Fortunately, I had a ready release from these daily challenges through the practical, soul soothing pleasure of growing a garden.
There was nothing new about that activity. From as far back as my memory stretched, gardening had been an integral part of my existence. Among memories I treasure are readying seed potatoes according to parental and grandparental guidance (“Cut a good chunk of tater, son, and always make sure it has at least two eyes”) with that proud boyhood possession, my first pocket knife. I remember sowing hills of corn, four kernels to a hill, with Grandpa Joe letting me know about spacing as he went ahead of me dropping October shucky beans that would use the cornstalks as their climbing apparatus; handing grown family members sweet potato slips or tomato plants; having my own little patch to tend as I reached my teens; and savoring the culinary bounty provided by our family garden as a central feature of daily existence.
Well, before reaching adulthood I had become inextricably linked to that timeless, rewarding cycle of plant, nurture, and harvest that traces back to the point when mankind first made the transition from being hunter-gatherers to cultivating an agricultural way of life. Links to the land, often subconscious but nonetheless emotionally powerful, have succored and sustained me all the ensuing years.
That should be sufficient backdrop to explain why I was in a position to overhear the conversation discussing my keen gardening interests mentioned earlier. I was on the premises of a local woman known to one and all simply as “the plant lady.” Long widowed, she used the greenest of green thumbs to grand advantage in raising a wide variety of bedding plants, flowers, and vegetables to sell to locals. Hers was a ramshackle operation with makeshift greenhouses, no discernible order, and cash-only purchases. Shopping at her establishment required a willingness to accept outspokenness and quirky personality as a part of any transaction. However, she was knowledgeable, her prices were far lower than those elsewhere, and she always had some unusual offerings if you were inclined to try something different, which most devoted gardeners are. Somehow, we got along wonderfully well from the outset, probably because the first time I visited her place I was able to share a bit of plant folklore with which she was unfamiliar.
Whatever the case, she “took a liking” to me in her words, and that came into play when I heard another customer saying she was surprised to see a university professor wandering the grounds as one of her customers. The plant lady’s instantaneous reply filled me with pure joy, especially since she had no idea I was within earshot. “Why, he ain’t no professor,” she said. “He’s just an old dirt dauber.” That description of me as a human digger and dabbler in dirt perfectly suits my persona. I walked away that day, proud as a peacock, thanks to having been dubbed a dirt dauber. It’s a badge I’ll always wear with honor.
Living close to the land runs as a bright thread through the entire fabric of my life — as a hunter, fisherman, forager of nature’s bounty, picker of berries, woodland wanderer, and lover of wild places — but nowhere does that linkage provide a greater degree of continuity and contentment than when gardening. I suspect much the same holds true for anyone with a reasonable degree of familiarity with growing things, whether they are a few flowers, some herbs in a windowsill, a small patio with plants in containers, a tiny plot small enough to be worked strictly by hand, raised beds, or a full-fledged garden of “need a tiller” dimensions.
Probably the most attractive of all of gardening’s many faces focuses on spring and earth’s reawakening, but in truth it is a year round pursuit. Looking at it from the perspective of the calendar year, there’s the grand culinary satisfaction associated with sitting down to a savory bowl of vegetable soup featuring items you have grown and frozen or canned. Or perhaps the mainstay of a winter meal sure to ward off what my folks always called “mollygrubs” or cabin fever consists of some type of beans you grew and dried, which have been rendered particularly flavorsome thanks to an infusion of herbs you likewise preserved or maybe chow-chow you canned many months ago. Then, in the same gray and grim time of later winter, relief can be found in colorful seed catalogs with page after page of titillating temptation.
Then comes the incomparable planting time of spring. Robert Browning may have waxed eloquently wistful with the words “Oh to be in England now that April’s there,” but his heart would have plain out pined with wrenching desire had he ever been privileged to know March in Carolina with swelling buds, warming soil, and birds in full song. The beginning of another cycle in earth’s eternal rebirth means soaring spirits connected with planting time and promise of bountiful crops in coming months. Such links to the land can be deeply meaningful, and if anything, they grow more powerful with the passage of time. It is my fixed conviction that being a gardener is conducive to long life and certainly long love of life. To experience a few of the countless examples of why this is so, all that is required is turning to some of your senses — simply sniff and savor the heady aroma of freshly plowed ground, gaze upon a garden just blessed by a soft spring shower, or enjoy the feel of humus-rich soil in your hands. Such experiences soothe the soul like a blessed balm.
Inexorably, the promise of spring gives way to the provender of summer, and as “laying by time” (the point at which a garden can hold its own against weeds and no longer requires close attention) arrives, one’s workload shifts from nurturing and cultivating to harvesting and conserving. This is a time of grandeur, of fresh tomatoes resplendent with flavor and texture instead of the tasteless, cardboard-like offerings of grocery shelves; of dew-drenched cucumbers; of corn on the cob with every kernel a tiny delight of milky goodness; so much zucchini squash you can’t give them away; green beans and okra demanding daily picking or cutting; crowder peas and limas to gather; and the first melons beginning to ripen. Busy days follow one after another, but oh, the delights they provide. The gardener works hard at this season and gradually eases through summer, into dog days, and onward to fall, hopefully with showy jars on shelves and freezer shelves well-laden. With the first heavy frost, another growing season winds down. Only a few cold-hardy vegetables remain, and it’s time to clean up stalks and detritus, maybe work some leaf mold or compost into the soil, and reflect warmly on completion of another gardening year.
No matter the season, a garden assuredly provides far more than wholesome meals, lovely flowers, or the time-honored satisfaction of “putting food on the table.” It offers a place of quiet refuge to escape daily stresses while re-establishing loving links with the past. If you’ve had a particularly frustrating day, try applying the business end of a hoe to intrusive weeds; use your hands to jerk offending, unwelcome squatters competing with your cherished plants from the soil; or follow a tiller up one row and down the next. As you begin to sweat — you don’t perspire when working in a garden, you produce honest, honorable sweat — and drops roll from your brow, something magical transpires. What had mere minutes before been teeth-clenching, muscle-tensing state of mind yields blissfully to a sense of wellbeing. All the while you are doing your plants a favor.
Yet the ultimate measure of gardening’s unending pleasure is better experienced in person than explained in print. A garden provides a place to pause and ponder, to observe in unhurried wonder, while you contemplate unfolding miracles wrought by soil and sun, water and wind, and your helping hands. There’s no finer antidote for a troubled mind, and the sense of satisfaction to be derived from putting fine victuals on the table or sharing garden truck with friends and neighbors adds zest to life. If you don’t find gardening therapeutic, let me offer a suggestion — and it’s a serious one. Make an urgent appointment to seek psychological help. You’ve got a hole in your soul. A far better alternative, however, and the time for action is now, involves getting outside, linking to the land, and reaping the enduring rewards awaiting all those who can proclaim, “I’m a gardener.” It’s once more seed time in South Carolina, and to be a part of working on and with the land is to cultivate not only plants but inner peace.