What Gardening Taught Me About Myself — and America

Sometimes you reap what you don’t sow. In gardening, as in life, that can be a very good thing. 

Illustration by Anne Lambelet

I’m on my knees in a light rain, tugging at a maple seedling. There used to be a maple tree in the backyard of the house next door, but it was hit by lightning years ago. The seed that started this plant could have helicoptered here from anywhere, though, on its whirligig wings. Its roots have worked their way deep into my tomato bed, encouraged by compost made from our cast-off lettuce leaves and potato peels and watermelon rinds.

Boink! The seedling springs free, rocking me back on my heels, and I scan the ground for my next victim. Tiny plantain rosettes have cropped up around the leg of a tomato cage; I burrow through them with my weeder. My ruthlessness is kind of fun. In the rest of life, I’m a polite, well-mannered copy editor, gently teasing the writing of my younger, highly sensitive colleagues into shape. Here, I can be my real self — a killer, brutal and quick. I dig deep for a dandelion, twist it out, toss the carcass onto a growing bier.

The rain intensifies, cutting off birdsong. Not for the first time, I think about the similarities between the work I’m paid for and this, that I do for free. Whether it’s words or weeds, I pare away the extraneous, the unruly and unwanted, trying simultaneously to encourage creativity and keep it in bounds. It’s a balancing act. What is it they say — a weed is just a plant that grows where it isn’t wanted? I put in balsam seeds here; they came up over there. I sowed nasturtiums there, and now I find they’ve sprouted here, transported by magic or rain or a bunny’s wanderings. “Volunteers,” gardeners call them — these unintended consequences. Happy accidents. Sometimes I pull them out; sometimes I let them stay. It’s what I do with adjectives and adverbs, too.

The Bible begins in a garden, once you get past the chaos of Creation. God planted one and put man there to live — “to cultivate and care for it.” No wonder it’s so satisfying to grub in the ground. You’re playing God: Every garden, every year, is a new beginning, a fresh genesis. Will the evening primroses self-sow? Will there be enough rain this spring, or too much? My backyard is a 20-by-100-foot cosmos, a petite universe waiting for me to redesign it annually. From the first hellebore in February to the last calendula in November, it occupies me. There are seed catalogs to peruse in the intervening months.

It’s not surprising that the pandemic got so many of us gardening. In a survey by researchers at UC Davis, gardeners worldwide cited the “sense of control and security” the hobby offers. The benefits to mental and physical health were so marked that the scientists suggested we view gardening as “a public health need, one that could serve communities well in future pandemics or disasters.” That’s a heavy lift for someone who just likes BLTs. But in a world spinning so fast out of control, there’s comfort in having this extra arena where I’m the decider: Thin out those poppy seedlings, or let them all live? Prune that rosebush back, or train it to a trellis? And here in the backyard, I have visitors — birds and bees and butterflies, mice and bunnies and voles and, this year, a sharp-shinned hawk and a big-ass garter snake — to remind me that even in my work-from-home isolation, I’m part of a larger world.

And part of a heritage. My dad used to garden — he babied a backyard bed of tomatoes every year when I was growing up, and after my mom died, he went on tending her flower beds for another quarter-century. Not too many years before he died, he asked if I could find him some ‘Betty Prior’ rosebushes; he remembered them fondly from his mother’s garden. I did, and we planted them before he went into assisted care. I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re still there at that house in Doylestown. Out in the country, plantings of peonies and irises surround the toppled ruins of old houses, defiantly greeting each springtime for gardeners long since gone. Who’s in control now? And yet they endure, themselves brought here from God knows where, grown, perhaps, from seeds or divisions or cuttings transported from other gardens, other lands. A woman in Philly, Amirah Mitchell — a Temple horticulture grad — has started a farm where she’s propagating seeds central to the African diaspora experience: cow horn okra, cushaw squash, callaloo greens. Their names are like lullabies. She calls the place Sistah Seeds. This autumn’s harvest will be her first.

When the COVID pandemic hit, in March of 2020, I rushed out to buy vegetable seeds at one of those grocery-store kiosks. I bought a ton of stuff — carrots, sweet peas, turnips, radishes, cabbage — even though my only experience was with tomatoes (bought as plants grown by someone else) and flowers. My son Jake came over to help me dig the tomato bed wider and spread compost across it. He likes gardening. There’s no outdoor growing space at his apartment, but he has a grow-light setup in a window and cultivates a houseplant collection there. His sister Marcy, on the other hand, bought a house with four garden plots: a strip of roses along the proverbial picket fence, a bed for herbs, a big rock garden, and another big vegetable bed in the back. She can barely keep mother-in-law’s tongue alive, so Jake and I plant and tend the beds for her. It’s a lot of land. It’s why I’m going to have to retire soon.

My Victory Garden was a bust. Total yield was a handful of wan little carrots, another of radishes, and maybe half a cup of peas. It served as a reminder that it’s easiest to stick with what you know. By now, in my yard, I can count on larkspur, sunflowers, ­lilies, phlox, cleome and nigella to thrive and spread. Then again, I don’t look down on surprises. This past winter, a volunteer malva, a plant I’d always thought of as weedy and dumb, somehow survived the snow and frost and erupted in May into a showstopping fireworks of flowers. I learned that their color is where the word “mauve” comes from. I keep a list on my computer of what plants have been doing well for Marcy and where. Here at home, I already know, after 28 summers of caretaking.

I do have some persistent lettuces in one corner of my yard, popping back year after year because I’m always reluctant to cut them and tend to let them go to seed. I love the soft, bright green of the leaves. This year, though, I tossed some with tomatoes and red onion for Marcy’s July birthday. The salad reminded me that when I was a kid, in my family, you got to decide what supper would be on your birthday. (We didn’t go out to eat; there were too many of us.) I chose the exact same birthday meal every year: steak, baked potatoes and peas. I was a red-meat girl. My husband and I hardly ever eat it anymore. It costs so much, and there’s all that cow methane to worry about. We mostly stick with chicken and vegetables and fruit.

There’s a guy at Penn, a fine-arts professor named Orkhan Telhan, who a few years ago mounted an art exhibit consisting of human cells that he’d grown in a petri dish. He called it Ouroboros Steak, after the mythological serpent that eats its own tail, and he exhibited his cultured human cells in galleries around the world on a china plate, with silverware. A posting about it on the Fox News website was headlined, “Grow-your-own human steaks meal kit is not ‘technically’ cannibalism, makers say.” It got a lot of hits. The project, intended as a satire on the cultivated-meat industry (a.k.a. “cellular agriculture”), provoked outraged emails, furious tweets, and … requests to buy the kits. (They were never offered or intended for sale.) Apparently, even eating human flesh isn’t taboo anymore.

Jake enjoyed the birthday lettuce salad. He recently declared himself a vegetarian. He just doesn’t like the idea of eating animals, he says. He’s always had a really soft heart. I respect his choice. Digging into a juicy rib-eye kind of does feel like chomping on ouroboros steak these days. Maybe it’s time to up my veggie-growing game.

I can if I want to. After all, I’m lord and master of my one-22nd of an acre. I’m the weed whacker, remember? I’m in charge. Now that the harvest is about to wind down, I can spend my winter making little graph-paper diagrams of where I want next summer’s petunias and lamb’s-ear and salvia. (That last one’s name is from the Latin for “safe, secure, healthy.”) In my sketchbook, there’s a place for everything, and everything is in its place.

But plan though I will, there are interlopers. I can try my best to stick to my sketches. How do I know, though, that some errant seedling I uproot wouldn’t have grown, like the malva, into a spectacle? Every summer I get fooled, discover that I’ve murdered whole stands of cornflowers or accidentally coddled a patch of nutsedge.

Then again, that last weed is a kind of Cyperus, a cousin to papyrus; its uses by humans go back as far as 6,700 years in Sudan. The ancient Greeks prescribed it as medicine and made perfume from it. And here it is in the wilds of western Montco, poking up through my tomato plants.

The house across the fence from the tomato patch has new inhabitants — a young couple, freshly married. They’ve clearly never had a lawn before. In spring, when the grass made its mad growth spurt, they were caught without so much as a mower. The wife’s dad comes over once a week and takes care of the backyard, which the couple — I’ll call them Wilma and Fred — mostly use to play with their dogs.

That’s nice of Dad, but he has limits. Grass and weeds get whacked off; the dandelions don’t get yanked out. (Then again, at least they don’t get Roundupped to death.) This makes the lawn next door a botanical Genghis Khan, intent on spreading its genes as widely as possible but mostly into the fertile loam of my well-tended beds. And that means more weeding for me.

I could say something, I guess — to him or to Wilma and Fred. For now, I’m just going to give it some time. I’d never had a yard either when we first moved here. I distinctly remember the neighbor on our other side watching in disbelief one spring as I painstakingly transplanted crabgrass sprouts from the front of the garden to the back under the delusion they were precious rarities.

One thing a garden teaches you is to take the long view. Peace with neighbors is more important than a perfect yard.

When we bought our house in 1994, an older couple lived in Wilma and Fred’s house — impossibly old, I thought then. They were younger than I am now. They were experienced gardeners, hardworking and cheery. Julio, the husband of the Latino couple that eventually bought their house from them, had no patience for gardening; he laid turf over all their garden beds. Somehow, some of its stars managed to find refuge in my yard — three peony shrubs, ­lilies-of-the-valley, a stand of sky-blue irises. Nature finds ways to live on, even in sidewalk cracks. Borders and boundaries have no meaning for rhizomes and seeds.

It strikes me, as I fight to control the chaos my garden is constantly threatening to erupt into, that this is a metaphor: the garden as melting pot. I can view volunteers as happy accidents of fate, refugees with yet-unknown potential, or as interlopers, menaces to the vision of “my garden” I lay out during the long, cold winter, making my plans. There are gardeners who are strict constructionists — the Clarence Thomases of clematis. My approach is more liberal. I welcome all comers, at least till they prove me wrong. That’s how I wound up with a butterfly bush, found as a stray in a minute crevice along the back alley, and a tuft of butter-yellow irises beside the garage.

It’s the same way America has grown — by assimilating new additions. That’s been our strength, and the salvation of countless emigrés to our shores. We could have stuck to the vision the founding fathers laid out here in our city hundreds of years ago — cis Anglo-Saxon guys in charge, Black people in chains, women relegated to the kitchen and bed. But think of all we would have missed out on just locally: John Casani’s majestic City Hall sculptures. Albert Greenfield’s city-making real estate empire. Cristina Martinez’s joyous approach to cuisine and community. Kati Kariko’s groundbreaking vaccine discoveries. Joel Embiid’s prowess and pride. Not to mention the countless men and women from Asia, Africa, all corners of the world, who built — and still build — our roads and railways and industries and businesses.

In life and in gardening, it’s best to lean toward inclusion. So what if some larkspur turns up where I didn’t plant it? I’m no Donald Trump or Viktor Orban. And I’m not the sort of gardener who wants a bed of pure white roses, thanks.

Published as “The Plot Thickens” in the September 2022 issue of Philadelphia magazine.