By Andrea K. Hammer
The gardening cult puzzles some folks. But for members, digging our hands in the earth helps us to make peace with—or take a rest from—grappling with life’s mysteries.
The man I have lived with for more than 20 years taught me about the comfort of gardening when my father died; the garden was the only place to release memories of his suffering. Through nature, my partner has reminded me about the undeniable cycle of life.
Even my father, who scrubbed tire dirt from his nails after a hard day’s work rather than gardening soil, accepted the fundamentals of life. When we planted my grandmother back in the earth, he murmured, “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” I walked quietly by his side, doubly stricken by his ashen face.
Gardening is the great equalizer.
Seedlings and Springtime
In the chill of winter mornings, I have stumbled to our basement, filling pots as my promise for the following months. We have watched the seedlings poke their heads up, slowly returning me to spring, my natural set point.
Several years ago before the first crocus bloomed, my mom passed out around midnight, trying to reach her bed. Even though she split her head open and had a swollen mask of bruises, she came to and reached the phone in time. She was determined, after a week in the ICU and a month of slow healing, to right herself like an upside-down bulb, instinctively flipping itself over to reach for the sun.
After my mom regained her footing, I returned home in time to see our daffodils and tulips start to sprout. In our new home, we were finally able to plant directly in the ground.
Back then, my partner talked about planting his uncle’s tomato seeds, which he was reluctant to do anywhere else. That was my sign that we were finally home—a place where we literally wanted roots.
His sister sent us cuttings from family heirlooms, including lilies of the valley, which reminded him of his grandmother’s garden. We talked about his family’s tradition of gardening, as we created our own.
Gardeners are a generous lot, delighted to divide plants and share bushels of over-sized zucchini. My ultimate dream is to have one section of our garden dedicated to vegetables that multiply. We’ll have plenty to share with our neighbors and another overflowing basket for donations.
In my dreamland, I also envision rows of lilacs and roses. The believer in me, buried under some mulch, pictures us sipping lemonade in our future fragrance garden.
Even years after purchasing our home, we still need a bulldozer to level our terraced and tangled backyard. As we yank at the ivy strangling some precariously angled trees and uncover unexpected green shoots, I think of The Secret Garden. We plant mammoth sunflowers seeds, and I imagine foxglove, poppies, and dahlias across the slope.
We tug at vines, lose our footing, scoop up dead leaves, and watch for poison ivy. We have discovered the azaleas and bleeding hearts, planted by previous owners, and have added some of our favorites: hyacinth bean vine, lantana, gladiolas and more.
As autumn now slows our gardening pace here on the East Coast, I continue to dream in flowers: imaginary arches with climbing baby roses line the walkway to our front door; a pergola has wisteria and clematis gracefully climbing skyward. A four-season sunroom extends out back and wraps around the house. My mind twirls with possibilities as I imagine a new solarium enclosing the rooftop area off the master bedroom; I can smell the coffee perking and see us reading the morning newspapers with our beloved cats.
In my mind, our future garden will have that exquisite blanket effect in which varying heights and textures blend smoothly together like masterful artwork. Soon, we will once again make our rounds, delighting in daily—and even hourly—changes.
Our amaryllis, which should bloom around Christmas, has just emerged with flowers trumpeting in every direction. She’s on her own clock, setting her own standard.
In every season, I go into the garden stupefied by the mysteries of life. By another miracle, I re-emerge with my joy restored. Clinging to the promise of spring even as the trees shed their leaves, I wrestle down the fact that some of life is lost but the cycle of renewal at hand.
Let the replanting of hope begin.
*Adapted version of this essay appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer. See more writing samples in a portfolio with clips from international publications.
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