When we made decision to move out of town and into the country, much of our reason for planting a garden was to serve as a reminder of these core values of family. Not to be misunderstood, there are other reasons as well. Sure, we do it because the earthy lettuce from my garden tasted nothing like the lettuce from the store. We do it because market tomatoes are picked green and ripened with ethylene gas, which may make the tomato red, but does nothing for the flavor, while our tomatoes taste like summer. We do it because vegetables are meant to be seasonal and, amazingly, produce pulled fresh from the ground harmoniously provides for the cyclical needs of our bodies. We do it to grow pluots that wholly balance tart and sweet, and peaches so perfect that ice cream seems insignificant. But even more fundamentally, we do it because a garden’s existence, much like our families, depends upon countless hours of care and cultivation, of watchfulness, compassion, and understanding. It demands that my wife and I spend time together, engaged in a labor that requires us to slow down and appreciate the beauty of incremental change over time, a concept so incredibly essential to the establishment of family traditions that I cannot begin to state its importance. It doesn’t simply serve as a metaphor for what it takes to build good family, it literally creates good family.
This past winter, we added eight bare-root fruit trees to our front-yard orchard. To break ground and prepare the planting medium for each tree required an hour’s worth of intensive labor from the two of us. During those eight hours, my wife and I discussed not only the cultivation of our trees, but of our family. We discussed how to properly amend the soil to provide all of the nourishment young trees require; how we must not let our trees bear fruit too early, so they might use all of their energy to establish a strong foundation. We discussed our short-term labors and long-term goals, and dreamed about the joy our little orchard would bring. We thought about the pies Aunt Renee might make with a handful of July Elbertas and about how a grilled Santa Rosa might taste alongside a scoop of Uncle Rick’s ice cream. We discussed the strengths of our marriage and laughed at our weaknesses. She is the peach. I am the walnut. By the end of the afternoon, our hands ached and our muscles were sore, but somewhere deep down we were content.
Yet, somehow I find myself creating an illusion about the garden and the familial metaphors in such a light where everything is sunny and all is successful, which couldn’t be further from the truth. Like families, gardens fail. Even though my tomatoes thrive, their power overshadows the peppers whose beautiful glossy fruits grow small and malnourished. What is salsa that is all tomatoes and no peppers? Our pickling cucumbers were no match for the deliciously fresh Armenian cucumbers. This is a predicament that will only bear weight with time. The Armenians in summer are superb, but the disappointment surely will set this winter when our holiday tables go pickleless. My pumpkins are small and embarrassing. Our garden has never seen a watermelon of size, yet the cantaloupes are fit for the county fair. My peach and my nectarine trees are wonderfully alive and have grown five feet since the spring. While my plum is struggling to fight off a shot hole bacteria, the pecan is failing to thrive. My garden, like my family, is in a constant state of fluctuation. We constantly attempt to achieve a harmonious balance, but we are also aware that perfection is a pursuit, not a place. We must accept the failure along with the success and will work hard to figure out why we achieve both. If all we do is focus on our successes, and refuse to acknowledge our failures, we will wind up with a garden of squash, which in essence, is not a garden at all. It is monoculture. It is crop.
There’s one other thing that my garden is teaching me about family, a lesson too important to be overlooked. A garden must have time to rest. A garden, much like a family, must be allowed a time for the laws of nature and the forces of creation to play upon them as they will. Too much focus on production strips to the soil, and renders the foundation fragile. Absence is every bit as important as tending, and I must allow a time for nature to take its course. I must permit native plants and grasses to move in, for them to address and adjust for the intricate needs of my soil, an understanding and healing that only time and nature and God can understand. If I hope to be able to work the ground in the spring with the confidence that production will be fruitful and full, I must allow it a time to breath, to become native, to become wild. And although the work come spring might sap more strength and bloody more knuckles than if I had carefully managed it all winter, the fruit that it bears proves it’s worth.