Wednesday, April 28, 2010
It’s been slightly over a month since I sowed my first seeds indoors and slightly less than a month since my lettuce, beets, and onions were either sown or transplanted directly into the ground, and I have to say that for a first-time gardener I’m amazed nearly every day by something green. Somehow I’ve managed to make it to 31 without ever having been taught or shown anything relating to gardening. Like many children I spent a lot of time with my mother when I was a young child, and ever since I can remember she has hated dirt and yard work, so I was never exposed to growing anything as a child. When I got older my father at times had a small garden, but he wasn’t the best gardener. Even still, like many people I’ve been talking to over the last month who are self-proclaimed gardeners, he was fairly successful at bringing the vegetables he did grow to harvest by just winging it. And whatever it was that he did wing, he didn’t share with me, which was likely due to my lack of interest at the time. My history with plants is that I kill them, but it isn’t for a lack of trying. I’ve always wanted to know how to keep them alive.
Everything I’ve read about gardening and everything I’ve done over the past month with the little green things is completely new to me, as this is my first real attempt at keeping something alive that isn’t a houseplant that’s been gifted to me (“Oh, great, another present that’s going to die in a few months – thank you so much!”). It’s my first time seeing how something grows from a seed and progresses through its various stages of planthood (I just made that up), encountering adversity nearly every single step of the way.
I suppose the first thing that can go wrong with a plant is that the seed it would otherwise emanate from never actually germinates. This only happened to one type of seed I planted – spearmint. I hear this is ironic, because mint is invasive and typically spreads into places you don’t want it to grow, but I’ve tried germinating seeds twice now with absolutely no success. As if I wasn’t as careful as could be the first time – sowing my seeds on a table littered with my taped-together 6-page spreadsheet and Vegetable Gardening for Dummies book amongst other hand-written notes about each plant – I was even more careful the second time, assuming that I accidentally planted deeper than a quarter inch previously. Still, no dice.
The other seeds that did germinate have also had a varied success rate. All the other seeds germinated, but many never got to develop their real leaves. I started worrying about my plants as soon as the seeds were covered in soil. Would little green plants really grow from the seeds? Was I prepared to deal with the new seedlings when they did come up? Would I be able to cultivate them appropriately and actually be able to plant some in my garden? I read all I could on how to care for the new seedlings – mainly the amounts of water and light they should receive, but I also read about petting the tops of them so that the energy of each plant would be concentrated in their core and they would grow to become short and sturdy with a thicker stalk instead of tall and spindly with a thinner stalk. I did get a little pleasure when I read about this method and that its successful outcome is to be short, sturdy, and thick, like me, but mainly I was amazed at how intuitive this method actually is – finally, I could seemingly understand SOMETHING about plants! Not wanting sickly spindly seedlings, I pet my seedlings every day. I can’t really tell if it’s working, since I don’t know what they would look like if I didn’t pet them, but I do it on the assumption that it’s helping.
The other day I was looking at my seedlings and I felt as if they have been the same size for a really long time. Shouldn’t the leaves get bigger and the stalks taller and thicker? Then several days later I noticed something weird: something appeared to be growing straight out the top of some of my seedlings. At first it looked like it was maybe the bud of a new stalk, but after several days I realized that what I had seen growing are what are called real leaves. Until then, I thought the other leaves WERE the real leaves. I had heard the term “real leaves” before, but I assumed that fake leaves wouldn’t look like leaves at all. It was then that I realized the plants I had decided to grow didn’t all just coincidentally start out having only two leaves and that this was going to happen with ALL my seedlings (hopefully). For some reason this process amazes me. Since I learned about real leaves, I’m noticing seedlings everywhere that don’t yet have their real leaves or are just beginning to get them, and as silly as it sounds I feel like I can relate to them. They aren’t just weeds, they’re plants, and the fact that this is happening to plants everywhere (without human intervention) seems like (for lack of a better word) a miracle. How is it that I can fret so much over my little seedlings and still have 40% of them die, while neglected wild seedlings are successfully growing outside between well-worn sidewalk cracks?! But that’s exactly it: they aren’t neglected. They exist and continue to exist solely because they’re getting exactly what they need from their environment – I guess this is how someone coined the term Mother Earth, which I never got before right now. It’s my desire to control nature itself that introduces some of the problems, so as a gardener my goal should not be to “grow plants” but to try to recreate the natural environment in which the plants I hope to cultivate would naturally grow. I should stop focusing on methods and actions to grow plants; I should instead focus on understanding how the forces of nature work and go with the flow of my plants with that in mind.
I may sound like a nut (J calls it “releasing my inner hippie”), but since my plants got their real leaves and I had this realization, I’m looking at the world around me through brand new eyes. I’m amazed by the idea that the thing that keeps the green things green and thriving is the same thing that keeps me alive and thriving, and I’m even more amazed that for my entire life I’ve been so ignorant of this link between all living things and that for better or worse I’ve been taught over time to think of myself as somehow separate from the natural process of life. I think I got my first glimpse of my connection to the life I see in these real leaves when my dad passed away. It was shocking, but I couldn’t in any way rationalize why it shouldn’t have happened given the contributing factors. It’s just how things work. There didn’t seem to ever be any point in denial. Then, when my grandmother passed away several months ago, I saw her die a very different death. She essentially died of old age and natural causes. The process of death was so slowed down that for once I got to see an extended snapshot of the middle of the process that’s usually very quick or hidden, because we don’t like to see it. We usually think of life in two ways – alive or dead – but I got to see the transition with my grandmother, and I was comforted by it. It made sense to me. I could understand how and why it was happening, and I really think more people would have a greater respect for life if they got to see that transition. I’ve never seen a baby born, but I hear it’s “a miracle”, and I expect that it’s the opposite transition into life that makes people feel that way about it. The deceleration of energy or the acceleration of energy, the transitions remind us that there’s something there we can’t see that we otherwise take for granted in daily life.
I guess in the end we can’t really expect our lives or life in general to be as enjoyable or respected as it could be if we were all able to see and understand the nature of life itself. I may be late to the party, but sadly I think that some people will go their whole lives without seeing this side of life, and I’m glad I’m finally seeing it. Some people will remain satisfied with artificial flower arrangements and fake foliage their whole lives because it’s easy, while others at different points in their lives may choose real leaves, which are undoubtedly more work, but also undoubtedly more rewarding. Within the work of the observation of life lies the realization that the things that come out of the leaves aren’t just for decoration – one more thing we can classify and enjoy for a bit before putting in a box and forgetting. They’re more than that. Within them lie a method of understanding life from a more connected and actually quite practical point of view, which can not only improve the quality of our own lives but also improve the quality of life as we know it in general. And to think that all this is free for the taking; everywhere we go seedlings defy the odds and peak through the cracks of sidewalks and otherwise completely paved road surfaces. Instead of seeing them as a disruption in the artificial order we’ve tried to assign, next time you see a seedling poking out of a crack think of what it had to go through to get there. In the landscape of the lives we’ve created for ourselves, it may at times be the only real thing that persists to exist. It’s that will of life to keep on living, of energy to keep on flowing that makes us who we are, even if we don’t know the difference between real leaves and fake ones quite yet.