Last spring I decided it was time to get my hands dirty and plant a garden. A proper garden, in the ground.
For several years I’ve achieved what I considered moderate success with a tomato plant or two on the porch. Add to that the hop vines, grown in whiskey barrels, that did nicely in their third year, rewarding us with enough hops for a batch of homebrew, and I felt ready for the big time.
To set the mood: the poetically mouth watering pages of prose describing asparagus, for one, in Barbara Kingsolver’s “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle” and a timely article in the New York Times suggesting several online seed retailers. A peek outside at the unsightly new retaining wall on a seemingly abandoned worksite in the backyard plus the history of two years of cursory attention by the landscapers and it’s no wonder my patience for progress had worn thin. I was eager with anticipation to start digging, cultivating, nurturing … or at least to just start by ripping out the damn hedges that were half dead anyway!
But before I ever picked up a shovel, I busted out the graph paper and a pencil and I walked around the house in April with my sketch pad and measuring tape. I jotted notes and made lists. I consulted the online catalogues of seeds while visions of terraces and stone paths and lush greenery danced into being in my mind.
As with any beginning gardener (if I can call myself that) my imagination was brimming with possibility, nevermind the lack of know-how needed to get there.
And yet, already, this vision I had created on paper and in my mind was my first garden. Let me explain.
In his book “Second Nature,” Michael Pollan describes his own garden as “actually two, one more or less imaginary, the other insistently real. The first is the garden of books and memories, that dreamed-of outdoor utopia. … The second garden is an actual place. … Much separates these two gardens, though every year I bring them a little more closely into alignment.”
My beautiful, magical, well-behaved, bug free, gorgeously edible, imaginary garden (with NO mosquitos) is not what happened this year. Despite watering and weeding and careful if clumsy cultivation, some of my seeds just never came up. Rather than failures, I’m calling these endeavors educational, because at the same time, a few of my plant selections, some with fantastic flowers and fruits, have taken over!
As in the garden, also in life. Nature, wild or cultivated, is often an apt metaphor if one takes the time to consider it as such, and as the summer wore on, this seemed especially true.
Again, let me explain. Several years ago, I embarked on a path through graduate school, but let’s call it life for generality’s sake. I did my homework, completed applications, talked to professors, students and mentors and became increasingly excited about returning to the academe for a professionally transformative experience, all the while cultivating in my mind the shape of my future.
When I got here, to Duke, I embraced my new environment, explored subjects I wanted to learn more about and got involved in ways I had never been involved before. I was, if you will, planting seeds of possibility. Some of those seeds have germinated and flourished, both in my mind and my work. Others have underperformed my expectations. Of the underachievers, I can speculate on the cause: too much sun, not enough, an intolerable pH balance … but regardless of the reason, what’s important is that I recognized the time to record the results, and iterate toward the future. Each new year, a new opportunity to plant anew.
Completely tearing up the roots of last year’s plantings that didn’t quite work is a near impossible task in the garden and in life. I got most of the root ball of that awful hedge out of the ground but only after much sweating and hacking. And after filling in the crater it left, I’m certain that shrub has left a deeper history in that spot than I will ever fully appreciate.
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The same is true in life, although at times it seems easier to collect the blooms, or in my case a masters degree, create a meal, and till the stalks and roots back into the soil to nourish the next endeavor. Memory serving as the soil, a foundation made richer by experience.
It’s safe to say that both of my gardens, vegetative and professional, are still very much a work in progress. However, even though it will certainly take two years before the asparagus is ready for its first real harvest, I already feel confident I’m moving closer into alignment with that future self I hold in my mind.
Lix Bloomhardt is a fifth-year graduate student in mechanical engineering.