Five months before the birth of my daughter, my days became consumed in bulbs, blooms, and denial. I studied Burgess and Burpee catalogs and trembled at “What to Expect When Expecting”. There was, however, a missing chapter: “Your Husband Will Be Consumed in Stuff Not Remotely Related to Child Rearing.”
For some men, it’s simonizing the car. For others, it’s crafting a pub shed to hide and drown anxiety in craft brews. For me, it was turning over very suitable and mowable grass for organic veggies and flowers of every shape, size, and ethnicity.
I was to be the Noah of the plant world, my yard, the ark, and my soon-to-be baby dove would have a lifetime helping me weed and classify and debug every miracle of God.
My dear, patient, and exceptionally pregnant wife Mary Jane did not share my affinity for dirt, sweat, and sunburn. “If it was up to me,” she said, “I would have a concrete garden or a bamboo backyard.”
I was shocked. When we were courting, she loved the outdoors and courtyards full of blossoms. She loved leisurely strolls in Cape May, admiring the gardens, but never the hydrangeas, which she deemed, “old lady plants.” She loved picnics by the pond near her apartment, after, of course, I cleared enough toxic Canada goose poop for my floral blanket and graduate-student feast of baguette, jam, and shame. And she loved nothing more than getting lost in the loveliness of Longwood Gardens.
When I think of us in heaven, we are sitting forever entwined near the Chimes Tower with the hint of lavender and lilac surrounding us with the gentle murmur of the cascading stream. For some reason, I thought this love of gardens would one day translate into her wanting to help make our own This Side of Paradise. Alas, such Adam and Eve communal digging and planting and reaping were not to be. Whatever shambles I made of our new yard was my mess. No wife would kneel to the rescue in bonnet, gardening gloves, and denim blue overalls (no matter how sexy I made this image appear).
I was soon over my head in enthusiasm. Alone. With only my spade as a dance partner.
One Saturday, I found “the perfect” garden center, and I spent hours with two carts, hunting and dreaming and planning my garden. I had an eighth of an acre, but in my mind’s eye, I had most of Mullica Hill, like some Southern gentleman farmer.
Before I turned solid green to mushy brown, I even considered installing a year-round greenhouse somewhere by the grill. I stacked my small sedan into a nursery, sealed with every imaginable pollen. My nose tingled. My neck tightened. My head got dizzy. Was it the fear of being responsible for a child that made me so light-headed?
“I think I’m allergic to plants,” I told my wife.
She looked at the trail of mud on the white tiles in her new home.
“I got you some beautiful roses,” I said as my apology.
She looked at the twigs doubtfully. The twigs, she knew, were not for her.
As the due date was approaching, I underestimated not only the weeds and the aphids and the Japanese beetles, but this thing called “husbandly duties,” – not the sexually enticing duties. For some reason, this baby was draining my wife’s energy, so I did more shopping and caressed more feet. I made dinner and I washed the dishes. No pregnant wife of mine was going to bend over to scrub toilet and tub.
Okay, when the great outdoors called, she did sometimes scrub and bend. I have since learned that nothing, even digging out an overgrowth of mint, should ever come before dirt inside the home. Then came the breathing classes and the birthing classes and the lectures with the lactation expert and this thing called a forty-hour a week job.
Nothing stubs more green thumbs than full-time jobs.
Madeline broke on through at the end of October, our own Halloween pumpkin, but no pumpkins grew in my patch of despair. Death and decay festooned the yard she inherited. So from her brand-new painted “Children of the World” nursery, in fire-engine red, I held Madeline and showed her her kingdom. “This looks like a scene from The Waste Land now,” I said, “but next spring… Just you wait, girl. You’ll be the prettiest flower amongst a rainbow of flowers!”
Then, as if on cue, she spat up breast milk all over me.
After a few months home with Madeline, Mary Jane started to work two days a week. On Tuesday nights, she even dared to spare two hours to renew and rejuvenate away from the demands of Old MacDonald. Her notes read something like: “Please keep lotion on Madeline’s butt! Clean in a downward motion. There’s frozen breast milk in the freezer. Reheat in boiling pot. I’ll be thinking about you guys!”
When Madeline was able to stay upright, I would place a bonneted and sun-screened slathered baby by the garden beds and show her the difference between “good plant” (petunia) and “bad plant” (chickweed). My daughter would be my accomplice, which lasted thirty seconds. She pulled out a mum and raised the kill proudly, grinning all three teeth, to show me.
(It turns out she was her mother’s accomplice.)
I made great use of nap times. There was no need to ask why dirt covered the baby monitor, or why there was grime on Madeline. In the midst of a baby meltdown, there was no time to rinse and wash. “I don’t use any bad chemicals in my garden,” I said. “It’s all organic!”
“So Madeleine may have manure on her?”
“It’s certified organic!”
A bountiful garden may have mitigated such unfortunate encounters. After all, Mary Jane is a dietitian, and impressing her with several varieties of beans and tomatoes and cucumbers may have been a successful bargaining cornucopia, especially since I was becoming quite the culinary star in the kitchen. I had come a long way since my infamous Flaming-Scallop-and-Hazelnut Creamer-Shepard’s-Pie days.
Alas, once again, my gardening failures far outweighed my successes. Those beautiful, flaming red bushes in the spring were sticks stuck in the ground by fall. My carrots were the size of pacifiers. My peppers had no pep. And those promising hybrid tea roses in the colorful packaging? One or two blooms, and then mildew, fungi, black spot, Japanese beetles, Dengue Fever, The Black Plague, and some pest called The Wiggles.
I am, however, not one to be daunted. Those tempting seed catalogues would arrive, and I would plan my Wonderland, and then months later, I would survey my Land of Indifference, the time when time slips away, a day here, a week there, then the horrifying yellows of August and the ragweed and the sun brutal on crops and ego and pride. Season after season, year after year, that spiteful August sun spotlighted my failures. Then, at dinner, I would say, “You know, babe. Maybe next year I’ll just fill in everything with stone and start a Zen garden!”
I forgot what she said. Many words are not fit to print in a family publication, but it nearly rhymes with neuron and rings to the key of “irrational exuberance” and “dead rose bushes in old pots.”
And let me tell you: dead roses are not romantic. A running refrain in our home is: “Time to put some plants in pots and forget about them.” I hate throwing anything out. Placing plants in pots allowed hope for better behavior, at least until winter. That hope always went to compost.
Compost is a good metaphor: present failures will yield future successes. Gardeners know more about failure than most… no, after writers. Gardeners know that we only get better the more we fail: Too much potash, not enough acidity, too much wood ash in the compost, too little nitrogen, pruned bush too late, too early, hay instead of straw for compost, too much description, too much overcrowding of adverbs. Well, there’s a consequence. Dead plants, bored readers. To gardeners and writers, it’s all trial and error and Youtube tutorials.
Gardeners carry on a long tradition of failures. I take this knowledge of failure, however, and I am, not only, better prepared for the next season, but I am better prepared as a father. An infected watermelon plant that I rushed to the county co-ed for immediate consultation is much better than a neglected, infected child.
The lessons in the field carried over into the nursery, onto the playground, and into the classroom. I was able to see the big picture, to nurture when needed, and to let the damn thing alone, too, to grow at its own pace. I can anticipate what too much watering will do for my child. I know when to let the pot go dry. I know when to power wash an aphid off a rose, like a bad boyfriend.
Over time, over many seasons, I learned about south facing and north facing. I learned about nitrogen. I started composting. I started to understand science. My blueberry bushes flourished in the acidic soil, and Madeline loved the blueberries. Then the birds devoured them, and so I used netting. Then they got caught in the netting, and nothing saddens a child more than a frantic bird.
Over time, over many seasons, and an additional, lovely child, Nancy – who loves flower arranging and cutting, but not dirt and bugs – I learned even more. Now with more land, and some more time, I am inching closer to that coveted title… Master Gardener.
Now at forty-seven, I realize that gardening and parenting are not all that different. While it is true that when you plant a carrot, you get a carrot, when you plant a kid, you never know what’s going to spring up. Thirteen years later that simple carrot could turn into a cayenne pepper. A plant placed in a time-out pot will never call you a “bad, bad gardener!”
My daughter Nancy once asked me recently if I started gardening as a distraction or as a stress reliever. “I started gardening to become a better parent,” I said. “Do you think it worked?’
She gave me a late summer bouquet from the garden. She spent a long time selecting and cutting and arranging. She called it “Remnants of Glory.” I think she answered my question.