The Promises of Gardens

Starting a garden can be like reuniting with an old, old bottle of wine—a vintage forgotten somewhere in the crevices of the basement for three decades, or four—then discovered one day and carried up to the light to be decanted and poured into a glass for the first time. The color is the deep burgundy of heavy velvet curtains. It smells faintly of currants. It could turn out to be acidic mouthwash—worse than the liter bottles of merlot on the supermarket shelf.  But there is promise that it’ll be something great, more bodied and complex than any wine you’ve ever tasted. And so, you take a sip.

The gardening season begins with this same promise. Up here, in the northern climes, the frost has stretched on for half a year and the gardener has had all those cold months to imagine the enormous bounty he will produce. The seeds, planted in their tiny black cells and placed inside by the biggest, brightest window, hold the same expectation as the un-sipped glass of wine: They could grow plump, healthy vegetables or they could never sprout. Countless variables will determine their quality and vigor. Just as we cannot know if cork or air has seeped into a wine after years on the shelf, in our gardens we cannot know how much rain will fall, how many days the sun will shine, when the frosts will come, how thick the weeds will grow in, and how hungry the insects will be.

There are some variables we can control—the richness of the soil, the right amount of watering, and a steady level of care. But still there is much in a garden that cannot be planned for: Our tomatoes may be fattening and reddening into September, when an early, unforecasted frost kills them, or we might dig up our potatoes to find them half eaten by big, ugly bugs. There’s always the chance of disappointment. But isn’t it this chance of failure that makes our successes more rewarding? Would we rather give the old bottle the opportunity of being superb, or assume it is bad and toss it in the garbage bin?

Despite everything that can go wrong, the fundamental joy of gardening is the simplicity of growing our own food. With two hands, a spade, a shovel, some compost and a hose I can grow enough vegetables to have fresh salads everyday of the summer, tomatoes with mozzarella every weekend, and sweet butternut squash soup in the fall. There are also joys that arrive spontaneously: blooming fruit trees in the spring with honeybees buzzing so loudly you think they might lift them off the ground; an hour at the end of a hectic workday to spend watering, or weeding, or planting and for your body and mind to drop back to equilibrium; or spending a Sunday working in the dirt with a loved one, side by side, helping the garden to flourish.

This year, I’ve started my seeds again in March. I’m already looking forward to the long evenings of summer I’ll spend tending my plots and the shortening days of fall when I’ll bring in my harvest.

If you have an empty bed, even a pot on the front porch, I’d suggest you give it a try: Plant strawberries, peppers, or a trellis of beans. You might find, like the old, rich burgundy, that once you taste it, you’ll drink the glass right up, and want to drink another.