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Lessons from a garden

By Helen Mourre


Spring this year was like a fickle lover — calling one day with declarations of love, then disappearing for weeks, but one day as I sat on my patio under the soon-to-flower Mayday tree and inhaled its mystic, exotic perfume, I wondered what I’d done to deserve this day.

The garden beckoned, the soil newly tilled by my farmer husband who had miraculously rebounded after a trying winter of multiple health issues. I suspect the act of smelling that first pass of freshly turned soil had its own healing powers.

Before I got down and dirty in the garden patch, I meandered about the backyard, taking inventory. As always, some perennials didn’t survive winter’s cruelty. My shaded bed is always the most challenging place to get plants started. I made a list of casualties. No sign of the primroses I planted with such confidence last spring, the hardiness factor listing them at minus 46 degrees C. Obviously that’s not the issue. The three ferns I tended so lovingly were no-shows, as was the case with a grouping of cone flowers. On the other hand, the Adelaide Hoodless Rose and her pale pink sister bravely leafed out even though some nights the temperatures were still dropping below zero. And, you can always count on the hostas. Here they come, their bright green spears breaking ground, declaring: We’re back. Remember us?

What surprised me was the apple tree to which we administered such a stern pruning last fall. A few more warm days and they would be covered with leaves. Now, that’s fidelity.

I fetched the garden implements from the garage and my stash of seed packets. It was the May long weekend, the time when my mother always planted her huge farm garden. A perfect gardening day — the sun was warm on my bare shoulders, just the hint of a breeze played in my hair, the neighbours’ dogs frolicked on the lawn next door, their playful barking and yelping making me smile. I wanted to get down on the grass with them and romp like a child again, but there was a job to be done.

The ritual began. I pounded two stakes into the ground with binder twine strung between them so I could make straight rows. I don’t think anyone’s invented a GPS system yet for the home gardener. On the farm these days, my husband sets the GPS on the tractor and then it’s hands off until he gets to the corner, but here it’s the same method that’s been used for centuries. I grasped the long handle of my mother’s old hoe, the wood polished smooth from decades of use, put my head down and sliced through the fertile soil making a trench. The moisture was good — there was a lot of snow last winter.

This is a small-town garden so my choices are limited. I sowed the necessary vegetables: onions, lettuce, beets, Swiss chard, carrots, cucumber, potatoes, interspersed with sunflowers because they make me happy, stocks because they smell so heavenly, and a row of nasturtiums because they remind me of the colours of Tuscany where I visited last year. After it was all finished I leaned on the hoe and offered a little prayer to Mom, asking her to bless my humble efforts.

Gardening always makes me feel like the peasant woman in the famous Jean Francois Millet painting, The Angelus, who stops to pray in the field at the end of the day as church bells ring in the village.

As spring progressed and drought set in, I searched every day for some evidence of germination. It turned cold and windy. A few cucumber plants peeked through the soil. Some beets. No sign of lettuce or carrots or potatoes. Reluctantly I turned on the sprinkler, deciding my garden needed a transfusion of water. Then on the weekend we received a furious downpour which turned into pellets of hail. What little was up in the garden was now seriously damaged. As the garden dried, a thick crust formed on the top preventing anything else from emerging.

A few days later, a hard frost hit. The cucumbers were totalled. I decide to reseed them along with carrots and lettuce. Miraculously, it’s now mid-June and I can see the rows emerging. It’s a beginning.

What’s the lesson in all this? Keep trying? There’s always a way? I just know that I, like my mother and father before me, and now, my husband and sons, derive a lot of satisfaction from watching things grow, from nurturing small seeds into edible grains and pulses and vegetables that, hopefully, will find their way this fall to our family’s Thanksgiving table.

Mourre is a freelance writer from Rosetown, Sask.