by Loree Griffin Burns
My mother died in November of 1974, one month before my fifth birthday. I’ve carried motherless-ness with me every day since, deeply but quietly. When my first children were born, twin sons, that gaping hole filled first with worry. I had no idea how to be a mother. How could I?
I tackled this problem in the rational and practical way I’d learned to tackle everything in my life: I went to the library, checked out a lot of books, and read what complete strangers had to say about birthing babies and raising them up whole. The book that made the most sense to me was, of all things, a baby food cookbook. I thumbed through it in the late, dark nights, nursing one boy or the other, and when they were ready for solid foods, I made it for them myself. My babies grew chubby and beautiful on banana zucchini puree and broccoli apple swirl. I’d found a beginner recipe for mothering.
I didn’t get serious about growing the food I cooked for my family until the boys were nine years-old, their younger sister six. I’d been dabbling in dirt, growing my own zucchinis and coaxing tomatoes, cucumbers and even lettuce from the ground beside our house. I longed to grow more, though. When a friend told me about a local gardener who was offering to share thirty-five years of homesteading wisdom in exchange for four hours of garden labor a week, I was intrigued. In my interview, I learned Karen had been growing most of the food her family ate for decades, sharing her know-how with garden apprentices for nearly as long. In addition to sharing a bit of that know-how with me, she was offering to pay me weekly with one dozen eggs, a share of the harvest, and fresh goat milk and cheese whenever it was available. I’d start on April 1 and continue every Tuesday through Thanksgiving.
“I have no experience, really,” I warned her. “I’ve been pretty much teaching myself.”
“That’s okay,” she answered. “This is how you get some.”
Karen’s house was hidden from the road by a huge wall of arborvitae. I turned into the dirt driveway just beyond this hedge and found a front lawn dominated by a massive wood and wire structure and, inside of it, a flock of colorful chickens. As I stepped out of my parked car, an excited dog began barking from somewhere inside the small red house at the end of the drive. I walked up the wooden steps and knocked on the door.
Karen pulled me into a hug, and then into her home. The barking springer spaniel, Maddie, continued so incessantly that Karen and I gave up on trying to talk at all. I patted and soothed the dog while Karen put on layers, slipped on boots, and then led me and Maddie, quiet at last, out to the garden.
It was massive. Easily twice as big as the house. Could any one person, any one family, keep a garden this big? Karen kept calling it the lower garden, which assumed a second, upper garden, and I knew then I was out of my league. The space was eighty feet long, I’d guess, and twenty-five feet wide, bounded on all sides by floppy mesh fencing that appeared to me to be falling down but which, Karen let me know, was electrified and crucial to keeping everything around us from going to the deer and rabbits and raccoons and porcupine. Beyond the fence, nothing but overgrown grasses and weeds, punctuated with scrubby bushes and trees, every green bit of which seemed to me leaning in toward the garden, actively trying to swallow it whole.
Inside the fence wasn’t all that different. It was only April, the beginning of the gardening season, and already the growth could be described as lush. Riotous, even. I spied a few patches of soil, deep brown and wet, but mostly I was surrounded by new green plants and old, dead ones, and weeds, and piles of straw, and wooden scaffolding that held up the dead remains of last year’s vegetables.
Everything about the lower garden worried me. It looked like nothing I’d ever seen and called a garden. The three raised plots in my own backyard seemed suddenly … wrong. Karen, as she strode through pointing out this and that, kept referring to beds. I could see she was stepping carefully over and around … things … but those things did not look to me any different from things in the places she didn’t step. So I took to watching carefully where her feet landed, and then tried to put my feet there the moment hers had moved on.
After the tour, Karen led me back up to the house, where we loaded a garden cart with tools from the cellar. I recognized a few of them and marveled to myself that a person might own two hoes. Back in the garden, Karen handed me one of them and took the other up for herself. She pointed out the edges of a bed, and though I couldn’t really see them, I did my best.
On opposite sides of a three-foot jumble, we sliced through dead plant debris, our tools exposing the rich and pliant soil below. As we worked, Karen told me the dead plants were oats that she’d planted from seed last fall, after the veggies grown in this bed had been harvested. Oats grow thick and so kept the bed from going to weeds between the end of the growing season and the first frost. Oats are also delicate plants, keeling over dead from the shock of that first frost and then leaching their nutrients slowly back into the soil over the long haul of winter.
By the end of this lesson in soil nutrition, we’d edged a rectangular garden bed, twelve feet long and three feet across. Karen dropped her hoe and picked up a larger and stranger tool. It’s two wooden handles were as tall as she was, separated by a metal bar near the ground. From that bar hung six, foot-long metal tines.
“Have you ever used a broadfork?” she asked, walking the one in her hands down to the end of our newly edged bed.
She gripped the two wooden handles, lift the fork straight up, and then plunged it down so that the metal tines pushed through the dead oats and were buried deep in the soil.
“It’s going to help us get some air in here.”
She was pulling the handles back now, and down, bending at the knees so that the tines gently lifted six small mounds of soil in front of her.
“Tilling does the same thing, aerates the soil, but this is gentler on the microbe community.”
The respect in her voice as she said the words microbe community struck me. She returned herself and her broadfork to upright.
“Plus, when you get a rhythm …”
She stepped back six inches and lifted the broadfork again.
“… it’s like meditation.”
She plunged the tines back into the soil. She bent her knees, lifted those six little mounds of soil, stood up, stepped back, and began again. In this manner, she made her way back to where I stood, transfixed.
Then she handed the broadfork to me, bent to clean her hands on a patch of weeds, and told me as she stood, “You try it. I’ll go get us a flat of onion seedlings to plant in here.”
I watched her disappear down the overgrown path that led to the house, Maddie the spaniel springing along behind her. Then I turned back to the bed, took a deep breath, and began a meditation.
The rhythm of opening up packed soil with a broadfork slid gently into that of weekly Tuesday mornings kneeling in the dirt with Karen. Each week, as we rescued beds from the winter mayhem, turned them, edged them, fertilized them, and planted them, we got to know one another. I learned that conversation comes naturally and easily in a garden. While Maddie chased moles and rabbits outside the electric fence, barking all the while, Karen and I worked and shared our stories.
She and her husband had three children, all grown. The youngest had left home for college just a few months before, and I could tell this change was a deep loss for Karen. She asked about my kids, my husband, our town, the schools. We realized we’d both grown up in urban cities outside of Boston. As the growing season went on, she shared the heartbreak of her father’s recent death. I eventually told her about my mother, too. This sharing happened fast, I guess, but somehow slowly, too. I was learning that a garden could grow a lot more than food.
Karen and I planted things I recognized, like onion and broccoli and tomato seedlings, carrots and beans and squash and pumpkin seeds. And we planted things I’d never laid eyes on, like celeriac, parsnips, collards and dozens of mysterious leafy greens. I regularly asked for instructions on the care of these plants, precise recipes for making them happy and healthy. Like the time she asked me to feed the onion seedlings we’d just planted with nutrient-dense fish emulsion.
“How much fishy stuff should I add to one watering can?” I asked.
I was looking for a measurement I recognized. One cup! Instead, Karen forced me to eyeball it. “One quick tip of the jug,” is what she told me. “Not too much.”
And, so, I began to mind my instincts and common sense when it came to making decisions about what plants need. Each week I went home and forgot all about trusting myself. The following Tuesday, Karen patiently taught me again.
I learned the names of various plant families and struggled to remember which vegetables went with each. Brassicas, broccoli. Cucurbits, cucumbers. The rest was fuzzy. Karen countered my urge to pull up any and all weeds with a reminder of how valuable they were to the insects that pollinated her brassicas and cucurbits and the like. I tried to embrace all of this, the endless knowledge and new ideas, the crawl toward a new way of living and eating, the friendship that was laying roots.
At the end of each workday, I placed my pay—one satisfying cloth bag of milk and cheese and eggs and produce—in the passenger seat of my car, strapping it in place with the seat belt. On the ride home, I planned after school snacks: brownies, which my kids were used to, and glasses of fresh goat milk, which they were not. I worried about the late dandelion greens and early stinging nettle that Karen had harvested and tucked into the bag. Chopped weeds in our salad? Dried weeds for tea? I was as excited as I was worried. Maybe more.
I made scrambled eggs for supper on those nights, using a dash of goat milk and sprinkling the finished plates with fresh chopped weed-of-the-day, carrying the plates to the table with a proud smile on my face.
“Have you ever eaten dandelions?” I’d ask my family, sharing bounty on top of bounty.
The first thing I should have done with my own garden was move it away from the edge of the yard where I’d tucked it, and where it didn’t get enough sun. But I wasn’t ready yet to give up the wide-open lawn where the kids sometimes played. Also, I was oblivious to the fact that my garden’s failure to thrive was related more to that lack of sun than to my lack of gardening skills. Instead, I planted carrots. In the shade.
But I was learning. Compared to the lettuce, tomatoes, and cucumbers I usually grew, carrots felt exotic. For one thing, I was going to grow them from seeds; most of what I’d grown thus far came from seedling pots purchased at the local Home Depot. For another thing, the carrot seeds I’d purchased, on Karen’s advice, had been pelleted—coated with an organic clay-like material that made the tiny seeds a bit bigger and, so, easier to handle. This all felt like terribly advanced gardening to me.
Planting string beans was the kids’ idea. I was thrilled with their interest in my new passion, and so I bought three varieties of bush bean seeds: green, yellow, and burgundy. To my delight, the magic that happened in Karen’s garden happened in ours too, even in the shade. My kids and I kneeled together in the dirt, chatting about school and life in ways that felt just a little deeper to me than what happened at the dinner table or on the way to soccer practice. We were outside working our bodies and our own small patch of land, and even though there was no need to talk at all, we did, our conversations organic and alive.
After the carrots and beans were planted, my son Ben asked if we could grow sweet potatoes. We’d used all the available garden space by then, but together he and I concocted a plan to plant the single wrinkled but sprout-y sweet potato sitting in our kitchen cupboard into a giant plastic planter. I glowed as he kneeled over his pot, dreaming sweet potato dreams, and when he asked how much fish emulsion to add to the watering can, I was ready.
“Just a tip,” I told him. “You can eyeball it.”
One sunny and hot afternoon, Karen and I were kneeling together in the upper garden, pulling weeds, harvesting purslane and lemony-scented wood sorrel, talking in the friendly way we’d grown used to, when I asked Karen what year she was born. I can’t even remember why. But when she named the same year my own mother was born, the world went still for a few seconds. The girl I’d been and the woman I’d become, together, sucked in their breath. And then, because they were in the most nurturing space they’d ever known, they simply exhaled into the surprise of it all.
I’ve showed up in Karen’s garden for ten springs now, and she’s put a hoe in my hand every time, setting me to work, teaching me to grow. And now that I’ve finally moved my own garden into the sunshine, she shows up at my place, too. We alternate our weeks; one Tuesday in her garden, the next Tuesday in mine. We’re friends, women in love with the dirt and with vegetables, with our families and with one another, who worry in all the ways that farmers and mothers and friends can worry. I’ve become more than I set out to be, a grower in a deeper sense of the word. I’ve come to understand abundance more clearly too, realizing, as Rumi did before me, that the thing we are seeking is seeking us, too.
photo credit: Markus Spiske, Unsplash