Essay / Misc.

When Faces Called Flowers Float Out of the Ground

I’ve been doing a whole lot of reading this summer. When I come up from my books for air I go outside to garden. And, while you readers are likely a bookish lot with whom I could share many bookish observations, I’d rather share with you some thoughts that my gardening has occasioned. Here are four:

Just a Little Seedy

I prefer growing plants from seed in theory. How wonderful to witness and provide for tiny, gray-brown, hard, dry spheres to become living, green, soft, flowering, tall and stretching-taller plants! But I don’t usually do so for two reasons: it’s more difficult and takes more time. (I learn as much about myself from gardening as I do about nature and its cultivation.)

Resisting my preference for immediacy and convenience, I planted hollyhock seeds last spring. About twenty-five seeds sown yielded seven or eight seedlings. For every seed that sprouted, about ten weed seedlings emerged in the same area. I eventually transplanted the seedlings (once they were distinguishable from the weeds), but only four of those have grown into healthy plants. In this how much more precarious the good seed than the weed I sometimes see in such a small way how the earth is subject to futility, how she is groaning and travailing, waiting with eager expectation for deliverance.

Most hollyhocks are biennials, and I had to wait until the second year to see these plants flower. And they have done so beautifully. Gardening from seed tests my patience. But in this case it also proved my patience, giving me experience of the well-worth-waiting-for. I now know the wide difference between buying and sowing.

A Case of the Whiteflies

My hollyhock and sunflowers played hosts to whiteflies this summer. These pests damage plants by feeding on its nutrients. They reproduce rapidly. And they are difficult to manage, especially because they are resistant to chemical pesticides. I have tried spraying pesticides, whitefly traps, and regular hosing to reduce population. These have not yet been effective. I removed my sunflowers and a red salvia plant because they had become too infested. But I can’t bring myself to get rid of my hollyhock.

So this next week I will embark upon Pest Control Plan Number Four: biological control. Ladybugs are natural predators of whiteflies. But even purchasing a slew of ladybugs doesn’t guarantee control, since the ladybugs are not likely to make their home in my garden. Unless (and here’s the trick) I plant something that the ladybugs will stick around for: fennel, cilantro, etc.

This organic (and circuitous) approach to pest eradication astounds me. It may just be that though I cannot directly battle my garden’s enemies I can cultivate a system in which the good simply overwhelms the enemy.

Flower Girl

Ample reasons exist to plant veggies. It’s smart economically. Vegetables are nutritious. Growing your own food prevents thoughtless consumption. Sharing fresh-grown, hand-picked vegetables with friends and neighbors seems a lovely gesture. A vegetable garden encourages seasonal eating.

But I’m a flower girl for now. And it’s not really a matter of time or money. I confess that I garden exclusively to decorate and beautify. Not only am I committed to just flowers, but I even notice a certain singularity in my chosen flowering plants. I can acknowledge that fragrance, shape, design, and balance should all play a role in the aesthetics of a flower garden. But I seem to plant exclusively for the flower itself. Dahlias, roses, delphinium, foxgloves–I plant cutting flowers. Borders, fillers, and flowering bushes bore me.

Gardening has exposed in me a certain singularity of taste as well as an indulgence in the decorative. While I don’t think it represents any moral failing on my part as gardener, I am suspicious that in other areas of my life I behave similarly. My aesthetic is simultaneously underdeveloped and tyrannical. All too often in my life I choose the beautifying over the economic good. I indulge my tastes more often than I seek to expand or mature them.

So I am going to start a vegetable garden this fall. And I hope that instituting the care of vegetables into my daily routine will play a part in reforming my aesthetic.

A Renter’s Plight

Ownership encourages investment. It behooves an owner to maintain her property both for economy and for pleasure. But renters are notorious abusers of property. Perhaps because they lack economic incentive, or because of the essentially temporary nature of their residence, renters often take less care of their dwelling spaces than do owners. I rent my home (and I try to resist the stereotype I employ) and I garden in ground that I do not own. Some of my plants have roots that spread so wide and deep that I couldn’t possibly move them.

We speak of putting down “roots” as a metaphor for becoming tethered (to exchange one figure for another) to a local world. The implications are plentiful; fundamentally, rooting implies becoming part of a place. A most poignant image of home from Homer’s Odyssey is Penelope’s and Odysseus’s marriage bed: one of its posts is the trunk of a living olive tree, around which Odysseus built their bedroom. The bed is therefore immovable; the heart of the home is inextricably tied to the very land.

I garden aware that doing so connects me to this particular space, the very land I’m living on. I am significantly less likely to move because of my garden. This is good for me; it tempers my tendency to abuse my freedom and become flighty.

At the same time, and especially because I am just a renter, I am aware that I am only a steward of this land. Were I to move, another tenant would inherit what I now call my garden. It is good to have the reminder of how feeble are our notions of possession when it comes to such matters. We are stewards of creation, and should never let legalities of ownership obscure our confession that “the earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof: the world and they that dwell therein” (Psalm 24:1).

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