It’s a bright albeit cool morning in early May, the sun warm on one’s neck but goosebumps still dappling skin in the breeze. A cardinal trills its jubilant exaltations from a nearby arborvitae. The air smells faintly of magnolia blooms and fresh-cut grass. Amidst all this beauty here I am, wielding a bottle of Tabasco sauce with a maniacal fervor, dousing a flower bed with the spicy substance.
About twenty minutes prior, I had happened upon my freshly planted sunflower bed, desecrated by a squirrel. I had constructed a new bed, tilled and amended the soil with the finest aged manure the local hardware store had to offer, and painstakingly planted dozens of sunflower seeds.
All this to be undone in minutes by a gluttonous squirrel, who systematically unearthed each seed like a deranged Easter egg hunt, and left the cracked shells behind clearly to mock me.
The beauty of molasses is that it’s the de facto cliché for slowness for a reason. The stuff does not want to go anywhere in a hurry.
Years prior, I went to admire my garden beds only to find the broccoli decapitated by a woodchuck. Hollering at the beast did nothing, and poking him with a rather substantial stick only elicited a side-eyed glance. Later, after some dubious advice from an online gardening forum, I was kneeling by our back fence, pouring molasses down the woodchuck’s hole because, well, a stranger on the internet told me that woodchucks don’t like being sticky. The beauty of molasses is that it’s the de facto cliché for slowness for a reason. The stuff does not want to go anywhere in a hurry. With this being said, it takes enough time to pour a bottle of molasses down a woodchuck hole for a person to take a mental step back and appreciate the absurdity of the moment.
That’s what gardening is about, truly, a series of lessons in embracing the absurd. Sure, there’s the heavy influence of botany, a smattering of chemistry, a foundation in ecology, and some rudimentary meteorology, but let’s be real, the act of gardening is just as much mysticism as it is science. I am a compulsive over-planner by nature, the type to grab sunscreen, an umbrella, and an extra pair of socks if I’m leaving the house for a few hours. I make to-do lists and keep calendars and spreadsheets to the point of (I’ll admit it) neuroticism. Heck, I decide what I’m going to order from a restaurant before we even arrive there.
I struggle to embrace chaos, to lean into absurdity.
My summer garden plans start taking shape around January each year, when I’m scraping ice off my windshield in the frigid predawn and exiting the parking ramp at work well after the sunset’s pastels succumb to the dusk. I sketch out meticulous boxes on graph paper to represent tomatoes, zucchini, some cucumbers, and nasturtium. I immerse myself in articles on companion planting, soil health, and pest control. The planning reaches a fever pitch around mid-February as the seed catalogs clog our frozen mailbox daily, glossy photos of perfect tomatoes and lush foliage taunting me. I order seeds and I raise them in the pink glow of a grow lamp in our linen closet from March through May. I delicately harden off my seedlings, offering them a bit more exposure to the elements each day, like a tentative child poking a toe into a cold lake. All these endless hours spent researching, planning, and fastidiously tending to the garden can be upended in mere moments courtesy of furry, feathered, and winged pests, unexpected late-season freezes, gale-force winds, and innumerable other calamities.
Now, perhaps a rational person would give up at this point, do a cost-benefit analysis and succumb to nature’s ambivalence.
Surely, that’s what the planner in me wants. Still, the anticipation of biting into a perfectly ripe tomato, warm from the sun, and with the sublime balance of acid and sweet pushes me to throw away all my sensibilities. Heck, I’ll walk on my hands and quack like a duck if it means I’ll have a bumper crop of peas, picking the pods from their tendrils on a June morning, bees buzzing by fat and drowsy with pollen, the dewy grass clinging to my bare feet. I might feel ridiculous while I’m frantically rounding up all the spare sheets in the house to tuck the tender seedlings into bed before a frost warning, but those seedlings will likely grow up and thank me with cucumbers to pickle, peppers to roast, and carrots so flavorful I’ll eat them straight from the garden with a little dirt still clinging to them. If we never deviate from our comfort zone, we miss out on an awful lot of remarkable experiences. None of us should have to settle for a life of flavorless grocery store tomatoes and iceberg lettuce.
Embracing the absurd transcends the garden, and even a planner like me will admit its importance. The best-devised plans can always go awry, and it’s important for us to be flexible (I’ll replant those sunflower seeds), collaborate with others (Woodchucks hate being sticky, you say? Well, it’s worth a shot), and improvise when needed (perhaps setting the little varmint’s tongue on fire with Tabasco will teach him). If anything, I’m glad my garden has taught me to become more comfortable with the unknown, the unplannable, and the absurd.
What lessons has your garden taught you?