1. A Lotto Ticket
Under the canopy of sprawling, spiky leaves, I find the first summer cucumber of my garden. It is misshapen, bulbous on one end and angular on the other, but it looks for all intents and purposes like a cucumber. A garden is like a lottery ticket. For a small, up-front investment and a little bit of time, you either receive the prize of food, in the best scenario, or a deformed cucumber, in the worst. Either way, this August cucumber is the fruition of a sketchy plan I began in earnest last April: from selecting a collection of seeds to planting them in a terrarium, then transplanting them into take-away cups from the pizza parlor until they finally met the earth in the new raised beds my husband built. None of the beds are the same size, we never scattered mulch in the bare areas between the boxes, and I forgot to stake the tomatoes before they starting arching towards the ground, but my garden grows regardless.
As a child, I watched my father go through the same process, albeit with greater attention and planning. He would proudly parade his produce in open palms as I marveled, mouth agape. I grew up surrounded by the backyard gardens of Southern suburbs. In three adjacent backyards
lay row upon row of corn, lettuce, peppers, tomatoes, and string beans. The “fence” that separated our backyard from the Gohmanns’ was a rustic trellis of wood and branches that supported a thriving grape vine. My own backyard was lush with oak, maple, crabapple, and plum trees. A clump of bright orange tiger lilies near the storage shed marked one corner, a low hedge of white, blossoming mallow bushes marked another. Tucked in the corner of the yard behind the walk-out patio, just outside my bedroom window, was my father’s tiny vegetable garden.
As far back as I can remember Dad planted this annual plot. No bigger than a cellar door, the garden was full of salad offerings. Against the brick house grew beefsteak tomatoes tied to tall dowel rods with torn bits of old bed sheets. The next row was lettuce or radishes, bell peppers, cucumbers, and summer squash. In the very back row grew pumpkins or ornamental gourds. My father, now in his eighties, slower and hard of hearing, still works his yard. Once a week at 7 a.m. he dons his Churchill Downs cap and retrieves his electric lawn mower from the shed, much to the chagrin of his sleeping neighbors.
And every year he still plants a garden.
2. A Meditation
Growing up, there was a strict division of labor inside and outside our house. Mom took care of the interior in every way: cooking, cleaning, buying and maintaining all décor, fixtures, flooring, paint; Dad managed the exterior. Even so, my mother never liked Dad’s gardening. I’d hear her grumbling about the day lilies on the hill or the magnolia littering the front yard, how he always tracked mud onto the bedroom carpet. Before long, she bought plants that she liked and planted them in the brick boxes on the front porch, along the front fence line, and behind the back patio. Dad finally put his foot down and explained that he needed some space of his own, so a further division of labor was agreed upon: Mom took the front yard, Dad the back. And that was where I always found him, after work, pacing between the trees, smoking a cherry cigar back in the days when he grew sideburns and wore pea green leisure suits.
3. A Surprise Package
A garden is a small, manageable hobby, one that my father looks forward to every year. There is a solace that comes with the silence of planning and planting. Some years, my father orders seeds in the winter from the Burpee catalog. Other years he supplements with seedlings from the Kmart garden center. Usually, he waits for the annual seed sale at Walgreens—all seeds 10 cents a packet. At such an affordable price, he stocks up by the dozens and shares his hoard with me. Each February I anticipate an envelope of seeds in the mail for planting in my own garden. Dad never asks what I want to grow, what the kids might enjoy planting. He doesn’t pay attention to the light and water limitations of my yard or the time and focus limitations of my life.
One fall I mentioned to my father an interest in planting more hostas along the shady side of the house. Dad appeared a few days later with four liquor store boxes of divided hostas. Had he called ahead I would have told him that my son was sick, I had papers to grade, and the forecast called for storms throughout the weekend. Those hostas sat in their collapsing boxes all fall and winter, withstanding Dad’s impulsivity, freezing temperatures, and my neglect until I finally planted them side-by-side against the house—where they continue to grow with towering blooms every summer.
The fact that Dad can plan a yearly garden from start to finish impresses me. From the winter months when he orders seed packets and develops a mental blueprint of the layout to the tedious hours in early spring spent dropping seeds into the ground, gardening requires patience. A tomato planted in early May will only begin to produce by July. The process is meandering, with plants falling victim to temperamental weather patterns, voracious wildlife, mold, and aphids. Planting by seed is an exercise in delayed gratification, like the ice cream my son can barely stand to wait for after dinner, the money he never lets idle in his bank, birthday cards my father sends to me six months early.
Patience is not one of my father’s virtues. Dad often ends a phone conversation while I am still talking, something he might blame on bad hearing. This has led me—and my siblings—to many aggravated return phone calls to finish our sentences and say goodbye. On family vacations he walks half a block ahead of me and my mother, blaming his pace on his Bronx upbringing. Even when I visit my father to tour his garden, he rushes me from the backyard, down the front steps, and closes the door to my car to send me away. Dad takes his Walgreens seeds and pops them in the ground a month earlier than the package indicates for our climate zone. In early July, when the tomatoes first bulge, my father begins his anxious harvest. I remember peering over the kitchen counter as a child, waiting for the green tomatoes piled there to ripen in the sunlight.
While my father plants and picks too early, I forget to water, weed and prune. There is always something more pressing, more urgent, or more distracting. The rubber banded bundle of lettuce and sunflower and basil and cherry tomato seeds my father sends to me in March rests hidden in the kitchen drawer beneath the flashlight and screwdrivers—out of sight. My failure to plan and implement is also a failure of patience. My first vegetable patch succumbed to a powdery mildew blight that looked like my father’s bathroom counters after an aggressive shaking of the talcum powder. A fine white dust covered all of the vines—the shriveled cucumbers, the rotting pumpkins. Despite a few successful tomatoes and one head of leaf lettuce that year, my garden was a disaster.
Another summer I vowed to plan and to water more regularly. My husband and I dragged ten twenty-pound bags of humus and topsoil to the raised beds. The kids and I planted the seeds indoors using peat pots and a small, plastic terrarium. We watched the seeds break through the soil and tip over the lid, but once I transplanted the seedlings into garden beds, I didn’t follow through with my plans. The tomato plants grew top-heavy, bursting against their rickety stakes. The cucumbers over-ripened, yellowed, and rotted on the vine. The pumpkins were ravaged by squirrels and birds and the cosmos seeds never took. I think I planted two shade bushes in direct sun.
5. A Term of Endearment
A garden, I have come to believe, is more an expression of love than a measure of success. Despite my father’s impulsivity and my ill attention, our gardens grow, begging us to share their plenty. Just as I expect Dad to deliver seeds in the winter, I anticipate grocery bags full of vegetables in summer. He visits me with a bag in tow, or leaves the produce on my porch. Inside, I find green tomatoes, a radish or two, maybe a cucumber, some green leaf lettuce, a few scallions, and those damn green bell peppers he forgets I hate. I take what I can use and give the pepper to a neighbor.
During the summer months, when Dad comes for Sunday dinner, I surprise him with a plump tomato or a bitter radish from my own garden, some basil or dill on the salmon my husband grilled. He approves. During his visit, I take him on a tour of my garden. Look how the hostas you gave me have flourished despite three months in a box over the winter! Check out the volunteer pumpkin big enough to win the Kentucky State Fair! Some things you can’t plan, I point out. Who knew a bird would plant the seeds for that pumpkin? Dad shakes his head and laughs. He pats me on the shoulder before we sit down for dinner.
6. A Tacit Language
Before Dad’s grandparents emigrated from Russia to New York, they were farmers. I don’t know what they planted, how much land they worked, or who they served. I suspect there were beets for borscht, potatoes for stews, carrots and turnips stored in root cellars—hearty offerings for long, cold winters. Dad believes I inherited my love of gardening from my Russian ancestors, but I believe I garden because of him. Somewhere between his underripe tomatoes and my deflated cucumbers, we found a common language: earthen odors, worms, rain water and leaky hoses, dowel rods, acrid tomato and geranium stems, dirty fingernails, iris rhizomes, and bundled envelopes of forget-me-not seeds.
In the late February grey, winter wanes and I notice tulip bulbs poking green heads out of the earth in front of the house. I anticipate the azaleas budding, the hydrangeas greening new growth on old wood, and the hostas—those plucky, determined lilies—unfurling in rows in the shade. I can hardly wait to get my nails dirty again. Dad is already sending me gardening articles torn from magazines. Like me, he can barely contain his excitement. He sends packages, tightly taped and half impossible to open. I recognize his Sharpied scribble on the front of the padded envelopes. When I slit open the latest package all matter of seed packets spill out, tightly-bound in rubber bands: bachelor’s button, cosmos, marigolds, cherry and roma tomatoes, carrots, and iceberg lettuce, cucumbers, sunflowers, and Sweet William. Beneath the rubber bands he has tucked a note:
“I’ve been dreaming about BIG, FAT tomato plants. Spring must be just around the corner. Dad.”
Author Bio: Amy M. Miller’s essays have appeared in Salon, Hippocampus Magazine, [PANK], The Louisville Review, MOTIF, and Under The Gum Tree. She is the recipient of the 2017 Harpur Palate Creative Nonfiction Prize and a graduate of the Spalding University MFA in Writing program. Currently, she serves as the director of communications for the nonprofit cultural center, Louisville Literary Arts. Amy lives in Louisville, Kentucky with her husband, two children, and multiple varmints. She still hasn’t planted her garden.