I HAVE a crazy aunt. Every family flock has a few colorful birds, and she is one of ours. My aunt is an artist with a flair for the unconventional. From Native American jewelry and belly dancing to the more typical branches of sculpture and painting, her medium is life itself. Nothing she encounters escapes untouched.
I went to visit one summer when she had turned her talents loose on the backyard. I crunched along the winding and shaded gravel paths, admiring the landscaping while trying to avoid her noisy and territorial wild turkey. The plentiful array of flowers and plants would have equally delighted both a wedding planner and Chinese herbalist. As I made my way around the yard I came upon the vegetable garden and stopped short. I stared at it for a few moments, dumbfounded.
Let me explain that I have a bit of a history with vegetable gardens. I grew up in the long shadow of my father, who is a true Gardener. His peas, radishes, spinach, and lettuce appear every year in stout little rows by mid-March. Several varieties of tomatoes, potatoes, squash, melons and berries soon follow. He has invented irrigation systems to maximize the ease and effectiveness of watering. Weeds have evidently surrendered the domain because I have never seen one pesky, thorny leaf. During the harvest season he gives vegetables away liberally and often. One more batch of zucchini may have even jeopardized some neighborly relations. My father’s garden is his great joy, from the spring sprouts to the fall clearing to the winter months of anticipation.
Since moving on to my own bit of earth, I have discovered a great love for flower gardening. I have reveled in the fresh fragrance of lilacs and cheered at the first tiny crocus blades peeping through the soil. I have wondered at the elegance of iris, the simplicity of lilies, and the exotic beauty of hibiscus. Every color of emotion, from a calm shady green to a happy profusion of hot pink, could be found and expressed in combinations of foliage and bloom. Vegetables just seemed a bit . . . well, utilitarian by comparison. At a stage in life where I felt mostly functional myself, cultivating more practicality held little appeal. A potato just couldn’t charm me the way a peony could. My preference became more and more apparent as the flower beds flourished while the vegetable garden sat forlornly by, wilted and weedy. I had the vague sense that learning which flowers were edible would not fulfill the prophetic counsel to have a garden. Though my guilt over this situation grew along with the dandelions (which actually are edible but probably don’t count either), it was not enough to motivate any serious shoveling. The art of growing vegetables simply escaped me . . . until I saw my aunt’s garden.
Hers was not large, nor did it contain any exotic plants. What struck me about her garden was that she had planted it in circles. Circles! A small stand of corn rose in the center, and it spiraled out to tomatoes, beans, beets, peppers, and cabbage. When I asked her about it, she giggled and said that she was too lazy to unwind the hose, so she planted the seeds along the coils. Brilliant! My mind went back to the many times I had wrestled with an endlessly kinking hose or cringed at my crooked furrows. But my aunt had simply made the garden suit herself and now had beautiful results.
Part of my frustration with vegetables was rooted in my inability to grow a garden like my dad’s. I had imposed an ideal on myself and then became discouraged when I could not reach it. I then defensively claimed to dislike vegetable gardens, but this did not exempt me from obedience to the prophet’s counsel. What I realized while staring at that circular revelation was that the weighty standard I had struggled under simply did not exist. Perfect gardens could take whatever shape or form was perfect for the person planting them. All I had to do was recognize my own strengths and weaknesses and act within them. My little patch of weeds became an invitation for me to dig within my own soul for inspiration. I could plant my own circle of peas and lettuce and edge it with triangles of tomatoes. I could plant rhubarb with my roses or potatoes with my petunias. Maybe I could plant by recipe and have a soup, salad, and salsa section. Or, I could simply stand back and let my children create their own patchwork of plants.
I realized that getting comfortable with vegetables was just another way of getting comfortable with myself. Rather than pressuring myself with the example of others, I could let their work and creativity guide me to my own expression of obedience. Whether it’s one little pot or a half-acre plot, I recognized the value in nurturing something that nourishes. The unseen fruits of the harvest include sharing, thoughtfulness, and love, and these I have also watched my father sow and reap in abundance. Honoring his legacy would not mean imitating him; it would mean finding my own path to the inspiration he felt.
For now I sit in the grip of winter, anticipating the warm soil and soft sunlight of spring. I imagine filling our garden canvas with a palette that includes pumpkiny oranges and spinachy greens. I look forward to a leafy feast, both for body and spirit. I hope to grow a charming potato. I see myself handing a small plant to a small child, and watching possibilities grow.