EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece was written just hours before the devastating storm blew through Cedar Rapids on Monday. The photos were taken a few days before. The author said: “I will forever be grateful for (the photos). My family and I are heart broken at the lasting impact this storm will have on the landscape of our city. Our sweet garden took quite a hit but we spent hours cleaning it up to save what we could. I know friends and neighbors were doing the same thing all over town and helping each other. The trees on our property are all down but we will clean up and replant. Together we can honor the land and keep planting!”
I am an accidental gardener.
That is to say, I started to garden by accident, and I’ve certainly had my share of unintentional lessons and unexpected discoveries from Mother Nature along the way.
We moved into our house in northeast Cedar Rapids almost four years ago, and as soon as I saw the lovely fenced-in garden space in the backyard, full of plenty of room for planting — but also already teeming with perennial goodies like strawberries, blueberries, rhubarb, grapes, and (my favorite) asparagus — I knew I’d be learning to garden.
I couldn’t let a good plot go unloved.
I was in my late 30s but I had not really ever grown food before. I absolutely love flowers, and every year I head to my favorite local garden center and I fill as many planters as I can with them around the yard. But, I didn’t know a thing about raising fruit and vegetables. Truly, I knew nothing.
I had to call in the experts. That first year, I spent a lot of time working with my mom and my aunts — both of whom have a lifetime of farming knowledge and one of whom is a Master Gardener — in the garden to get it ready and figure out what to plant and where it might do best in our garden space.
While we pulled weeds and tilled the earth and tucked tiny seeds (have you seen how small carrot seeds are?) into the ground, we had great conversations about many topics: their lives growing up and feminism and how good it feels to grow your own food.
I learned so much, not only about how to plant beans and peas and the best way to water tomatoes, but I also realized how proud I was to call these strong, resourceful women my family.
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And if I’m being honest, that first year I do also remember thinking that we had put in a ton of work and that I was going to be darn disappointed if the garden was a flop. But as things began to sprout up I was fascinated: how incredible nature was, how novel an idea to put a seed in the ground and watch food grow.
I had grown up in an agriculture state, but until then, I didn’t know firsthand how exciting it truly was. I couldn’t believe how many veggies we grew. I delighted in sharing the harvest with my aunts and other family members and friends. I was handing out tomatoes like Oprah use to give away cars.
The past two years I have worked with my husband and our kids to prep and plant the garden. There’s always lots of enthusiasm from the start, especially from my daughter. Picking out the seeds and starter plants and figuring out where to place them in the garden — thanks to having to rotate where we plant the tomatoes each year, an important lesson I’ve learned — is always thrilling. That part of the process is filled with hope. It’s refreshing.
Then comes the waiting and the watering and the weeding. Over the long, hot summer weeks, I’m usually the only one in my family who is willing to focus on the importance of the w’s to ensure a bountiful harvest.
But as things begin to crop up, my family’s interest in our little plot expands. We patiently wait for things to be ready for picking.
My daughter loves heading down to the garden with a big wicker basket each day to pluck up what is ready. Cucumbers for pickling. Tomatoes by the handful. A few peppers and more basil than we know what to do with. The other day I was looking up — Google has to get some credit for helping my garden grown — how to know when to pick a watermelon.
And we’ll keep waiting patiently for our pumpkins to be ready. I love using pumpkins as decor in the fall and the seeds we planted are really taking over. Things are looking promising, but I just keep crossing my fingers that some pest doesn’t come along in the meantime. And there have been pests. The Japanese beetles wreak havoc on our grapes each season. Because our yard backs up to an incredible city park, I’m very lucky to have a fully fenced space to keep out our resident deer. (I supply them with a bountiful hosta buffet in other parts of the yard, anyway.)
I know this fence is what holds together my sanity and my patience each season. If only it held back the weeds, as well. I feel like the weeds have been worse than ever this year. Maybe it’s because of COVID. (We are just blaming everything on that now, right?) Likely, it’s from some combination of science and my early lax stance on mitigation. They got pretty tall in a couple of areas, a hearty crop, and I am sure they are the reason many of our sunflower seeds didn’t germinate.
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I do have a bunny that seems to have taken up residence in the garden. I find nibbles on cucumbers and tomatoes and even our watermelon. Heck, she ate every last green bean and wax bean I had grown. I don’t let it make it mad though, mostly. She’s just another creature that my garden feeds.
I’ve been a perfectionist for as long as I can remember. But there’s certainly no perfecting my garden. And I’m appreciating that. I’ve come to realize that when it comes to gardening, or caring for our whole property, which is filled with incredible trees and perennials that I didn’t plant but simply try to maintain, that I mostly just try to honor the land. My time spent in the garden is quiet and reflective. That has been something I’ve been more grateful for this season more than ever.
Because this is only my third growing season, I still have a lot to learn. But that excites and fascinates me. Every year we try growing new things. More accidental discoveries crop up, but my confidence grows like the cucumber vines climbing the fence.
The other night at dinner I decided to try a taste of one of the small hot peppers we planted. Of course I can’t recall the variety as the plant tag is long gone — my daughter now has a plan for next year to draw a garden map and label everything, getting it down on paper so we can remember specifics and the elements don’t wash it away — but I did recall that it was a spicy pepper. So I took a bite, proceeding with some caution. Even so, I was unprepared. That one bite instantly set my mouth on fire and I had to jump from the table to grab a glass of milk to soothe it. My family thought it was hilarious. Another accidental garden instance.
Accidents or not, I’ll keep planting and trying. As a creative and a mom, heck as a human, that is what gardening and life are all about.