Giving Up Gardening: An Inescapable Flicker of Hope

by Trista Cornelius

Each April, we rearrange our living room, shoving all of the furniture into an awkward clump on one side, so we can fit a long, low coffee table below the sunniest window on the other side. 

On top of this table, we line up yogurt and to-go containers filled with soil and seeds: three types of tomatoes, four types of winter squash, and a fleet of basil. 

I don’t know why I do this. I’m already caring for a young child, helping tend to a father with advanced Alzheimer’s, and supporting an elder mother. Why take on plants? 

I do love that our living room smells like earth. It’s also incredibly exciting when all of a sudden  tiny, vivid green sprouts push up out of the soil. It’s as if, overnight, we’ve acquired dozens of tiny pets, content to live in their yogurt containers while we swirl around them, going about our busy lives.  

Six months later, however, after I’ve spent an hour every-single-morning watering the garden in the ever drier, hotter, harsher Portland summer, fretting about our water bill, looking up “yellow leaves on tomatoes” and “mildew on squash leaves,” and buying bottles and boxes of this and that at the local garden store, my “harvest” is disappointing: a few fresh tomatoes, a couple pints of pesto, and exactly one squash from each of the five vines that survived.

Ungratefully, I think, this is it? I let you live in my living room for two months, I tended to you outside for four more, and this is it? 

Shouldn’t my toil result in a hearty reward? Shouldn’t I have Instagram-worthy pics of piles of squash and baskets of darling tomatoes? 

This year, I decide that I won’t grow a garden. I’ll give myself a break. I fantasize about all the time and energy I’ll have. But then, on the first Saturday of February, my son and I go to the farmers market. As I pay for potatoes and delicata I hear my voice completely independent of my brain, say to the farmer, “You usually offer plant starts, right?” 

“Sure do, blueberries and some rosemary over there,” he says gesturing to a shelf behind me.

“I’m thinking tomato and basil.”

“In June,” he says, “but look!” And he holds his phone out to us, displaying a photo of a bright hoop house lined with three rows of tables holding shallow rectangular boxes covered in mesh fabric. “There they are! Your tomatoes and basil! Started ‘em this week.” His tone suggests he’s showing a picture of a healthy human baby or spring lambs. I’m just as giddy and my son and I both sigh, “Loooooook!” in a way that sounds like “Cuuuuute!” 

I guess I’m gardening? Is this what hope looks like? Plodding along even when you don’t want to, the outcome is unknown, and there’s a high risk of heartache? 

A year ago, on March 9, 2021 I took my mom to get her first COVID vaccine shot. I felt hope for a reprieve from this ever-vigilant mindset of survival and protection. However, when I first tried to schedule her shot, attempt after attempt failed. I broke down into shaking sobs from stress and worry, but also because I was mad at myself for letting down my guard, for letting myself hope our lives might feel safer again. But here we were, at a small satellite hospital in a rural farming town, confirming her appointment.

It all went smoothly, but we were both filled with so many emotions and nerves that we walked around the hospital before heading back out to the parking lot. We admired the contemplation garden growing in an interior courtyard, and finally found our footing. Just before leaving, I saw a framed quotation: 

“More grows in the garden than the gardener knows he has sown. —Hispanic Heritage.” 

I related to this so much that I took a picture, but to this day I can’t name what else I, this gardener, has sown. What else am I planting, even when it feels like my efforts fail? What is my garden teaching me? That in spite of disappointment and sweaty mornings pouring water into raised beds, I don’t want to quit? That taking part in growing my own food deepens my gratitude for all food and the people and the resources used in producing it?

Maybe growing food is the same as parenting and caring for an elder—to choose to care, to tend, is to put your heart out there knowing it might break, knowing you might fail, but knowing you’re at least trying to do good. 

I visit my dad once a week at his care center. It’s not that different than watering the plants. I assess my dad. Are his eyes bright? Is his hair clean? Do his nails need trimming? 

The care he receives will not heal him. He’s not going to get better. The care maintains. My dad cannot reward us for this work. 

Maybe I can grow my garden the way I tend to my dad and the way I try to parent my child—give all the care I can muster without expecting anything specific in return. Though I can hope. I hope for a bounty of tomatoes. I hope for my dad to be able to talk to me now and then. I hope—oh so fervently—that my child will grow up to be a stable, healthy, even happy adult. 

But none of those outcomes can be known.

To care is to keep watering the plants. To give it your best every day, hope that it’s enough, then let go until you’ve got to start all over again tomorrow. 

photo credit: Cathy VanHeest, Unsplash