The Seventy-Sixth Letter: Afterthought Seeds & Garden Confessions

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Dear Daughters,

Deep breath.

I went out to pick veggies in our garden this afternoon and when I saw a weedy-looking tree sapling growing by the carrots, I pulled it out vigorously and tossed it into the yard with some other weeds. (I was a little surprised a sapling had grown up without my noticing it before, but I was pleased with my effort to rip it out.)

A minute later, I noticed another one just like it on the other side of the carrots, and that’s when I realized I had just yanked one of our two baby blueberry bushes.

Sigh.

Because it has been one of those days, the whole episode feels like a metaphor somehow:

Trying so patiently to grow something beautiful and then in a moment of carelessness, long before the seasons it will take to bear fruit, yanking it out by the roots.

And then haphazardly trying to bury it back down in the ground again, digging down to the good soil with your fingernails, watering deeply and thoroughly with a gallon-jug from the recycling bin.

Praying you haven’t done too much damage.

So much metaphor.

Girls, your dad and I have a reputation for being gardeny people, and I will confess to you that much of that reputation is decidedly undeserved. Clearly.

Sure, he grew up on a farm, and sure, I remember weeding at Grandma Lehman’s house in the summers, trying to learn the difference between weeds and flowers that she seemed to just know instinctively. I never could figure it out. Clearly.

But much of what your dad and I do know about gardening comes from trial-and-error-flavored conviction, and it started in some rather not-garden-friendly soil in Waco.

Since those early days of gardening as newlyweds in the Texas heat, we have gardened on and off, more or less, depending on the year. Some years we tilled up a huge plot in the yard. One of those years the whole plot flooded during heavy rain and our seeds washed away. Some years we helped out with our church’s community garden. Some years we’ve supported local farmers rather than grow our own veggies.

But we have this reputation as foody, gardeny, earthy people. Probably because your dad taught food ethics and had the students involved with a garden on campus property. And probably because people in Kentucky all know who Wendell Berry is. Probably also because I’ve written articles about the unexpected blessings of community gardens. And probably because I can be kind of preachy about things like fresh foods and cooking from scratch and the Mennonite cookbooks and, well, you know. You know I’m preachy.

Still, I confess to you, I feel like a newbie every time I plant a garden. Why can’t we ever get zucchini and squash plants to grow? Why do we never get enough cucumbers to pickle when other people we know have prolific harvests? Why did our cabbage shoot to two feet tall and then get eaten by bugs? Why does the basil planted at our house never grow to the heights of the same basil we plant at the community garden at the church?

I will never know the answers to these questions. (Except the cabbage one. I asked a farmer at the market about that and he gave me some advice.)

And also, I feel like an amateur because no matter how much we do end up growing, no matter our successes and failures, I am completely astounded by the miracle of every single flower that appears on our plants. And when it comes to harvesting actual vegetables we can eat? I mean, girls, I am as excited about it as you are. It feels so undeserved. It feels like privilege. It is.

I mean, how the heck do these seeds work? How does good soil and some watering and some sunshine produce such undeserved bounty? It’s no wonder so many parables are about seeds and growing and provision and the Kingdom of God.

If I’m not careful, I’m going to start preaching again.

And you get so excited about the green beans in particular. You’re proud of yourselves that you can take your little red sandbucket over to the garden and find yourself a snack.

This year, we have a raised bed the length of the house. We’ve got the aforementioned blueberry bushes, which will hopefully remain plural, and I did buy some other veggie plants on sale late in the season, but much of what is growing out there right now in the muggy heat of this late-July day was from afterthought seeds dug out of our freezer, tossed into the ground without much planning.

Without much planning and without expectation that they would grow. (We didn’t know if the freezing had preserved the seeds or not. It was trial and error in that regard too. We don’t remember when the seeds were originally purchased.)

The dozens of beans you’ve picked this year all came from those afterthought seeds.

I’m astounded.

I’m serious. Every time that something grows, I am astounded at the miracle of it.

I really am.

Today, after pulling out that blueberry bush and chiding myself—half embarrassed and half angry, I’ll admit—the garden yielded a half-dozen carrots, a cucumber, a handful of beans, and four cherry tomatoes.

It’s not much but it’s still hope incarnate.

It’s the Kingdom of God, right here in our garden.

It’s God’s faithfulness exhibited in the goodness of creation, the goodness of wonder and taste and dirt and roots.

It’s poetry, girls. Poetry.

And so, I’m clinging to that goodness, that faithfulness, that hope: maybe the blueberry bush will make it.

Maybe.

Because this whole gardening business is just chock-full of metaphor. Even the mess-ups.

Love,

Your Momma

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The Forty-Second Letter: The Basil Metaphor

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Dear Daughters,

Every year, we plant basil in our herb garden here at home, and we plant basil in our plot at the community garden. We haven’t been successful growing it from seed, even when we start it early, inside, in egg cartons and yogurt containers, so we buy already-healthy plants and transplant them. We watch them in the early part of summer and pinch off the new growth, as we were taught by a master gardening friend. It stimulates the basil plants to grow bigger and healthier.

Every year, the basil at the community garden thrives. By the end of the season, we are harvesting grocery bags full of basil. I’m not exaggerating. I toss that into the food processor with some olive oil and garlic and we end up with dozens of small jars of frozen pesto in our chest freezer each fall.

Meanwhile, every year, the basil in our own small, corner herb garden shrivels. It never gets big and bushy. We occasionally get enough leaves off of it to garnish homemade pizza on Friday nights, but never enough for a batch of pesto.

This year, I bought well-established plants from a nursery, multiple plants of the same variety, the same height. I planted them in both places.

It didn’t matter that the plants started out the same.

It didn’t matter that they came from the same seeds.

On Wednesday, your dad went over to weed at the community garden, and he said the basil was healthy and bushy over there already. The scent of the first fruits he brought home and put in a mason jar on the windowsill above the sink lingered around the kitchen all day yesterday.

The basil in our herb garden remains small and sad. We suppose it has to do with the amount of sun our small garden gets, compared to the bright sun at our church, with the nutrients in the soil–or lack thereof, with the rain, with circumstances beyond our control.

The plants are the same.

The seeds are the same.

You know, the plants that grow big and healthy didn’t do anything special to make that happen. They aren’t more deserving of the sunshine and the rain. God doesn’t love the community garden basil more than the basil in our small plot at home.

There has been a lot of terrible news in our country this week. It’s the kind of news that just tears me up inside, knots up my stomach, and brings tears to my eyes. I’ll be honest, there are moments when it even makes me afraid to be a parent of young children, as I worry about the future, your future, in what seems like impossibly complicated situations, full of pain and fear and sadness and mistrust.

All I want to do is hold you and protect you and keep you safe. I want to nurture you and water you and offer you sunlight. I want you to grow and thrive.

That’s what all mommas want, girls. That’s what all parents want, no matter where they are planted. 

I’ve been thinking about how absolutely undeserving I am to have children who are safe and healthy and loved. I’ve been thinking about how afraid I am sometimes, how worried I am sometimes, it makes me realize just how spoiled I am, how my perspective is all off.

I take for granted where we’ve been planted. It’s a life of safety and security, of relative ease and comfort. And we are so undeserving.

What if our family had been planted in Syria? What if we were Muslim refugees?

What if we were victims of racial violence? What if we didn’t feel safe in our neighborhood? What if we weren’t sure that the police were trustworthy?

What if we were living on the streets of San Diego and afraid? What if you couldn’t go to school because you had to walk for miles to get our drinking water? What if we were in rural Asia before a storm hit?

The news stories I read about–those are real people’s stories, real families’ stories. Those could be our stories. We are not special.

Because it doesn’t matter where people are planted.

The seeds are the same.

We are all children of God.

We are all made in God’s image.

We are all worthy of respect. We are worthy of sunshine and rain and hope. We are all worthy of beauty.

Love,

Your Momma