I never thought of it as a rose garden, but that’s because kids don’t. It was that area along the front sidewalk in which my mother’s thorny flowers grew, plants approximately the same height as myself, each with its dugout watering basin. The latter accompanying many horticultural efforts around the house, round holes in the desert which I assumed were part of gardens everywhere. And there was nothing attractive to me, a six or seven-year-old, in either her flowers or the hard-packed ground from which they grew. As for the latter, I knew it pretty well. I was often tripping, getting shoved or sliding across the dusty, gravelly playing field of Central Elementary School. I knew the ground for what it was, a mass of sharp tiny grains, all giving off a mineral scent.
And so being down on the ground, voluntarily kneeling next to my mother, proved to be somewhere between annoying and intolerable. But there we were, facing a border constructed of desert rocks. Behind which was a slightly raised garden bed. Surrounded by her roses, of course. Naturally, the sun blazed. It always did, revealing what this part of our yard contained. Ants, beetles, the occasional scorpion, and so on. All rather interesting, but generally not high on my recreation list.
Still, here we were, and God only knows why. My mother was showing me, but the whole thing was taking too long. Digging a small trench with a garden trowel. Opening a colorful packet depicting a bunch of enormous carrots. Sprinkling the seeds along the length. Then covering, oh so carefully covering, the contents of the little envelope. The latter were not much larger than poppy seeds on bread. As for their ability to turn themselves into anything like the carrots depicted, this seemed highly doubtful. My mother turned on a garden hose, sprayed her cultivation. I watched the water disappear into the arid wastes. Oy. It was over.
Soon to be over the top, at least if you think in geological time. For by my mid-40s, gardening had become a sort of art form. The best vantage point for viewing this era would be on the downslope of the cresting wave. The absolute peak had probably come a year before. And now it was autumn, probably September, and my friends Robert and Roberta were over for dinner. I took them out to the garden with a heavy heart. It seemed that things out there, in the three raised beds behind the garage, well, they might have slipped. My attention had certainly wavered. Certainly, 12 months before, the results had been spectacular. It seemed a remarkable accident. What do I know from corn? I didn’t. I don’t. Yet the previous year, I had raised row after row of the stuff, the ears hanging off the stalks just like in movies. I was the man. I was the garden man, and I had raised these corn plants. And was a sort of star.
How quickly stardom fades. As fast as my marriage, of course. My wife was gone by the time Robert and Roberta came by. I vaguely worried that the corn might be past its prime. I was certainly past mine. They probably did the picking. I can’t recall. More vivid, is clearing away the display on the dining room table. Flyers about the house for sale. Realtors’ cards. And being terribly careful. The house was staged, in the way of California home sales, the rooms prettified, chairs and lamps and tables and books all arranged in decorative fashion. The corn was, of course, tough, hard and disappointing. As was marriage itself. I was very grateful for the company, however, on that particular evening. As for the gardening, I had slipped. Inattentive, it seemed. But in retrospect, no, I had no lack of attention. I had no heart for gardening anymore.
At first, I had shared the process with my wife. And what a process it was. A disused patch of land behind the house ascended, in the course of a couple of years, into major horticulture. Tomatoes. Lettuce. More tomatoes. Even obscure things like radicchio, these I also grew. Meanwhile, I composted. I got books from the library. I adapted everything through trial and error. The compost bin was something I ordered from a catalog. I ordered a second one so that I could transfer contents from the first into it. This proved a reasonably effective way of aerating the stuff. Peeing on it was the real secret, naturally. And all this took place, after all, behind the garage where my techniques were my own. My wife spent a certain amount of time out there, and when my tomato harvest exploded, as it did for a couple of years, we both spent time in the kitchen. Squashing, straining, boiling and even baking the crop into various products. Tomato sauce. Tomato paste. Even dried tomatoes, using the oven.
She lost interest in gardening as she lost interest in the marriage. At which point, something curious happened. I kicked into high horticultural gear. What was I thinking? Or, why wasn’t I thinking? This is the question of the day, this particular day, and this particular moment in my life. Why? In truth, with my wife out of the house and out of the picture, my gardening efforts redoubled. Was this denial? Or did I on some primitive level think that a bounteous vegetable harvest might win her back?
No, I certainly had other fish to fry, as it were. It was time to quietly, consciously and ceremoniously let go of the garden. Watch it wither. The party was over. It was time to put the party gear away.
And because we never fully appreciate what we have, I thought nothing of my midlife gardening abilities. In retrospect, they were substantial, even remarkable. Somehow I actually crutched my way around the garden, leaned on a pitchfork to turn over the soil in the spring. That is to say, having purchased cover crop seeds from some catalog, I grew a green swath of vetch. Not to mention ryegrass. And the whole thing had to be turned under, as the garden books described it. And I did this thing. Pitchfork full by pitchfork full.
Today I have lost ground. Still, the ground is good. I delegate many of the farm tasks. More important, if I ever lose heart in that particular way…it seems possible to let go. Yet I do not believe it will ever be necessary to let go in the same way. For abandoning my first suburban garden meant facing the illusion of my marriage. In particular, that nurturance had to be earned through amazing feats. That when love failed it could be hoed and shoveled into life. That if you want to work very hard at gardening, enjoy it on its own terms. No one else’s. That life can sustain love only because love sustains life.
These days I have handed over lots of garden tasks to Lorna. But I’ve also handed over something more to her, my limited know-how. Damned if we weren’t out there only a few months ago, probably July, spreading carrot seeds. Shortly before departing for the UK, I, the almost married man, showed Lorna how to thin the carrots. She pulled them up, one by one, then reinserted them into my compost-laden ground. I have a small plastic tumbler that quite efficiently rots the contents of my kitchen waste bin. The weekly maintenance gardeners occasionally bury the contents. Thus, the soil. Thus, the carrots. In fact, the entire garden. My neighbors spirit away the tomatoes these days. Actually, not fast enough. It is running out of time, this garden. It needs to be passed on. Everything does, of course, and I need the practice.