“I don’t know what it is about fecundity that so appalls. I suppose it is the teeming evidence that birth and growth, which we value, are ubiquitous and blind, that life itself is so astonishingly cheap, that nature is as careless as it is bountiful, and that with extravagance goes a crushing waste that will one day include our own cheap lives, Henle’s loops and all. Every glistening egg is a memento mori.”
— Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker’s Creek
by Beth Young
Early June is the season in which I gave birth 24 years ago, and it was also my first season as a vegetable gardener. After three months building a garden in my first adult home, from ripping out sod and tilling in nutrients to building trellises for peas and beans, I had nothing to show for my efforts.
Tiny shoots begged for warmth, and their growth each week was maddeningly imperceptible. I knew nothing about how late spring really comes on Long Island. The whole project was a shambles hanging on the failure I fostered by stubbornly planting tomatoes on my first prenatal Mother’s Day, then watching them turn frostbitten in the cold.
I carried it heavily, as if it were the first of many failures in my journey through motherhood.
Just after 4 a.m. on the first warm morning in June, I woke to the roar of a thunderclap, watched lightning lace the sky, and, in the barometric pressure shift, my water broke. We raced up to Stony Brook to have a baby.
When we came home a couple days later, the garden was in full riot. By the time I was up and walking around, a newborn swaddled in my arms, the peas were fully bursting. Lettuce was threatening to bolt. Weeds were a foot tall in every bare patch where I had been trying for months to coax a bloom. To take an arm off my baby to harvest or weed was a new challenge, one I hadn’t prepared for in any way.
What on earth happened?
The naturalists know.
In Annie Dillard’s classic observational memoir, “Pilgrim at Tinker’s Creek,” she devotes an entire chapter to the fecundity of the natural world — to its inherent drive to reproduce, to make more of itself, to survive and, yes, to thrive. Much of this, in the animal kingdom, is teeming with horror — rat nests, slug-fests, bacteria and taxonomically impossible viruses blooming inside animal lungs.
“It is ugly, at least, in the eggy animal world. I don’t think it is for plants,” she wrote. “In the plant world, and especially among the flowering plants, fecundity is not an assault on human values. Plants are not our competitors; they are our prey and our nesting materials.”
Annie Dillard’s words are always with me this time of year, as the struggle to begin anew gives way to rampant unexpected successes — volunteer squash and marigolds germinating all over compost piles, last year’s black-eyed Susans and asparagus taking over new patches of barren ground, bulbs multiplying, herbs determined to have us curse their true invasive natures.
Gardening is a drive so many of us have embraced as the fear of the pandemic gripped the world.
To plant a seed is to make a commitment, to a patch of ground, to watering, to safely hardening off your seedlings and protecting them as they grow. It’s the same type of commitment a parent makes to a newborn child. The primary difference is that you won’t be arrested or despised by society if you fail.
Unfortunately, failure is always an option. This is why farmers buy crop insurance, and it’s also why they commit suicide at such a high rate.
A freakish late-May freeze or an airborne fungus, one night’s slug-feeding frenzy, marauding deer and rabbits, a June spell of 100+ degree days — these can all spell doom for your plants.
Perhaps this is why nature is so generous with her early June explosion of growth. Only the fittest plants will still be with us come September.
We cannot know now which plant will prove most fit for this season. This is something that is as unknowable in June as the prospective Atlantic hurricane tracks of September.
This problem has begun already as I write in late May.
The lettuce and carrots that I sowed so thickly, afraid of lousy sprouting, looked to have achieved about a 100 percent germination rate. As the plants grew, I knew I would need to thin them, but which young shoots would be the first to be ripped out? I gritted my teeth and pulled the smallest of them, and, unable to throw them on the compost heap, instead doggedly replanted them in the nearest spot of barren ground, then watched them wilt and wondered how even the kingdom of plants could be so cruel. Or was the cruelty my own animal doing? Is there something that I owe to plants, or do I have enough to carry when trying to nurture a human family and friends and a 16-year-old dog?
Water in your plants deeply. Give them the nutrients they need to grow now. Watch the sun and the shade and plan accordingly. Prepare yourself mentally for any lettuce in your garden to bolt with early heat, for any tomato plant to wither in the drying wind before it puts down roots deep enough to withstand the weather. Be on the lookout for squash borers burrowing into your zucchini stems. Now is the time for vigilance, before the frantic pace of summer knocks you into fall without you having the chance to savor a warm afternoon.
And while you’re at it, don’t forget to nourish the people in your life. Hoard family. That is enough of a task for any one human.
We are all dependent on the vagaries of initial conditions. But we can do the best we can now, while we have the time, to give all our plants a fighting start.
My baby will turn 24 on June 5. He’s spent the pandemic training tomatoes, planted well before Mother’s Day, with his girlfriend in a greenhouse in Manorville. I guess something about his newborn season has actually stuck. Here’s to a healthy harvest, for us all.
Beth Young is an occasional gardener and publisher of the East End Beacon. Her son, Isaac (at right) is learning to grow tomatoes.