“The one who plants trees, knowing that he or she will never sit in their shade, has at least started to understand the meaning of life.”
— Rabindranath Tagore
As the daybreak birdsong jars me from sleep in the waning days of April, downstairs on a heat mat, in a mess of peat moss and perlite, egg cartons and yogurt cups, I’m sure more green shoots are pushing up out of their seeding beds seeking this morning’s daylight.
By day’s end, they’ll have unfurled their first sets of leaves and set about the work of becoming something. It’s a gamble every year whether they will make it through once set outside into the heat and the wind.
It’s a strange business, this gardening urge, which has followed me from childhood apartment buildings to winter rentals with summers on a small sailboat, the hot salt air hostile to all green things, to a stubborn backyard plot of pine barrens sand acidified by generations of oak and pine duff.
As happens with many women, my gardening itch went haywire the spring my son graduated from high school, and settled in hard in the years of hot flashes and heart palpitations after. Getting back to the soil is in many ways a luxury in these days of mass upheaval and long work hours. Do we have time to build beauty or sustenance into our lives? Can we see caring for plants as a vital part of self-care, a concept so often talked about through the stress of the past few years, but so difficult to put into daily practice.
The heat mat sucks these little seed flats dry so quickly that little dashes of water, applied frequently, have become necessary to ensure any germination at all. Once the seedlings show themselves, I move them closer to the window, then find another flat to fill with more seeds and begin the process anew. There will never be enough room outside my window to give all of these seedlings a chance to grow to adulthood, but still I keep planting.
Before this process starts, I lay every seed packet I have out all across the kitchen table. For the longest time, I had dozens of seed packets stamped for the 1996 growing year kicking around. That spring, fully gravid and about to give birth, I’d had a spate of ridiculous optimism and thought I would plant everything under the sun. I got a third of the way there before a new life took my thoughts away from the plants.
I finally managed to weed out those seed packets just a couple years ago, but as I search this year, I find handfuls of packets from 2010, 2012, optimistic years in which I started a new relationship and bought a house. If I want to remember my milestone years, I should just add up the number of seed packets I have left from those years.
Of course, 2020 was also a big seed packet year, but judging from the long wait for that crop of seeds, everyone was in the same mood that year.
Some of these older seeds do actually germinate, but it’s kind of a wild card to determine which ones will. It’s like trying to have a baby after 40. You won’t find out if they’re viable unless you give it a shot. But I’m taking my chances on plants, not people, these days. There’s enough life to take care of already in the world.
There’s a whole chapter on fecundity in the naturalist Annie Dillard’s milestone environmental memoir, “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.” It’s an ugly word, she says, for an ugly subject. Life finds its way to propagate itself, over and over, whether animal life, plant life, human life, bacteria or even, as we all well know by now, viruses.
These base urges are what keeps life here on earth. Drop a cherry tomato on the ground and look back at that spot next spring. You’ll find 20 volunteer tomato seedlings, all huddled together, even though there is no way for all of them to survive. Do you snip away 19 of them and let just one grow? Do you till them all back into the soil and plant a brand new Bonnie Plant Better Boy from the Home Depot in their spot? There are thousands of choices to make in the garden, and most of them aren’t right or wrong.
But right now, I have too many plants. I already know I have too many plants, but it won’t be a problem until they become the plant equivalent of teenagers, I’m guessing around Mother’s Day, when they will swallow the kitchen whole if I don’t thin them out, give some of them away, or let them die. This is how this has always worked.
I lost my 17-year-old dog Fireball last winter, and on Earth Day last spring ended up with two tiny dogwood seedlings, hoping to plant one over Fireball’s resting place. They bloomed and then, very quickly their leaves turned a papery white color, a powdery mildew. I must have been zealously overwatering them, I thought. No guarantee they’d survive. I left them in pots on the edge of the garden and gave up.
I stumbled on them last week doing some cleaning. They’d already blossomed and their leaves were now that little green, “the color when the spring is born,” says Joni Mitchell. Perhaps they’ll survive, after all. Life is always trying to find a way.