September’s guest post is written by my friend and former English teacher colleague, Karen Carson Bennett. After working together for two years, I can honestly say that we are better friends now than when we worked together back in Indiana. We share a love for Michigan, football, and writing. Here Karen reflects on the unexpected when she decided to grow a garden with her then boyfriend, now-husband. Apparently, she has been successful where I continue to kill everything that grows in the ground.
When my then-boyfriend-now-husband said in the spring of 2019 that he wanted to plant a garden as an activity we could do together, I had some mixed feelings.
My family didn’t garden. My mom planted tomatoes, cucumbers, and rhubarb in the backyard of my childhood home—one plant apiece, never a full bed of green seedlings pushing up through the dirt. I would characterize this as “my mom planted some plants each summer.” But she didn’t garden. Flower-wise, she stuck to marigolds, petunias, and impatiens in the house’s front beds: nothing too risky, nothing too complicated. And each summer it was a toss-up of whether or not my mom could keep everything alive. A green thumb she was not. From this minor “gardening” exposure, I absorbed two things: 1) Plants are hard, and 2) “having a garden” meant, at most, three or four plants.
So when Steve said he wanted a garden, I felt tentative, largely because I’m a perfectionist who is immediately afraid of anything I cannot guarantee I will do well. (See #1 above.) But I also figured that a garden was a minor undertaking, so it was probably fine. (See #2 above.) “Sure,” I said. “Let’s plant a garden together.”
We started with three raised beds in the middle of Steve’s small backyard and sowed seeds for wax beans, green beans, cauliflower, broccoli, and carrots. Then Steve discovered that Home Depot sold starter plants. Fifteen large plastic pots later, we had tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, zucchinis, and eggplants scattered around the perimeter of the lawn. Then the cloth pots Steve found online arrived, and those were filled with potatoes, watermelons, pumpkins, and squash. In a few weeks, the backyard went from being an open space to being a mishmash of raised beds, overflowing pots, green animal fencing, potting soil, and an angry-looking plastic owl meant to scare squirrels.
Steve spent the summer immersed in learning what it takes to be a successful gardener. His greatest challenge was the “hardened city squirrels” that live in our neighborhood, and while he lost a fair number of vegetables to those little jerks, most of his efforts were not in vain. We ate fresh veggies all summer, and I had fun trying new recipes depending on that week’s harvest. I wasn’t particularly enthusiastic about the garden space itself, but I liked that my cooking hobby and his gardening hobby complemented each other.
Because at this point it did seem that gardening was just going to be his hobby and not our hobby, as Steve originally hoped. I struggled to find joy in the tangle of vines, the mis-labeled plants (if they were labeled at all), and the tall grass that grew under the raised beds. The backyard felt too disorganized, too uncontrolled, too unpredictable: three words that neatly sum up my generalized anxieties. But I liked how happy the garden made Steve. He found peace and serenity there, and part of me wished I felt the same. During fall cleanup, Steve was already talking about his plans for the spring.
At first, it seemed like the perfect early-quarantine project: a 19×19 enclosed garden structure with raised beds. Since COVID-19 halted trips to anywhere starting in mid-March (and we don’t own a truck), we had the materials delivered: 50 furring strips, 44 planter wall blocks, 22 pieces of rebar, 18 2×4’s, 6 rolls of chicken wire, 3 rolls of thick landscaping fabric, and about a million bags of pea gravel and soil. It took 2 inexperienced carpenters and 3 long weekends, but we completed the structure. I felt warm anticipation, positive that this garden would be better than the last.
The enclosure’s neatly measured beds, carefully plotted plantings, and crisp white labels for each tiny seedling led me to hope: this year the garden would be organized; this year things would grow nicely; this year there would be no disorder in the backyard. I no longer characterized a garden as being only three or four plants, but I believed that, no matter the number, plants could be controlled. I was the one calling the shots on where and how a plant took shape. Growth could be clean and smooth.
For most of May and June, the plants stayed in their own dance spaces. Steve and I harvested ruby-colored raspberries and bright red strawberries and watched as tiny pumpkins and watermelons took shape. We cheered on the bees and laughed triumphantly at the squirrels who tried to get into the garden and couldn’t. Then we blinked and it was July and the garden took on a life of its own. The pumpkin vines exploded across the beds, the tomato plants shot taller than my 6’3” husband, the cucumbers snaked up the chicken wire, and the raspberry branches pushed past the enclosure’s boundaries. The plants weren’t staying in their designated spots any longer, and it became harder to find their little white tags. Almost overnight, our garden became a jungle. And I’ll be honest—I was stressed. This was not the garden I had pictured. Why weren’t these plants sticking to the plan? Why couldn’t they all just grow…neatly?
Because, dear friend, the garden said to me one August morning, growth doesn’t work that way. All you see when you look at me is disarray. What if you looked around and saw progress? Perseverance? Ingenuity? Hope? Maybe the messiness isn’t the problem. Your interpretation of the messiness is what’s holding you back from really enjoying what’s here. Look around. What do you REALLY see?
A striped watermelon, basking in the sun, still ripening on the inside. Red cherry tomatoes next to green ones, content to be on the vine together. Cucamelons, at first an experiment but now one of the most prolific and delightful additions to the garden. Giant orange-green pumpkins, awaiting their turn for greatness, biding their time. Oddly-shaped cucumbers dangling from a dying vine, a testament to the fact that there is still more to learn. A single purple okra plant, dwarfed by pumpkin vines and zucchini leaves but standing tall, a reminder that life always finds a way.
It’s September, and the garden will soon begin its gentle decline. It won’t be long until the ground freezes and nothing can grow again until next spring. But the lessons from the garden—the patient acceptance of what is here, the challenging reframe of messiness into abundance, and the hopeful belief in “try again”—are seedlings I can feed and foster no matter the season. For that, I am grateful.
About the Guest Author
Karen Carson Bennett is a writer, reader, runner, and traveler who lives with her husband just outside of Detroit. She owns and works for Carson Academic Consultants, a small business that specializes in student services for high school students (ACT/SAT coaching, academic tutoring, and college planning). In another life she was a high school English teacher. An avid worshipper of both trees and words, Karen created @woodsofaffirmation on Instagram in early 2020, and pairing images of peaceful nature with timeless words of wisdom and advice has kept her sane during quarantine. She can be found there and at www.carsonacademics.com.