“My Garden—A Harvest of Peace for the Soul,” Ensign, Mar. 1986, 72
Grandma was seventy-seven when Grandpa died. It was in the spring after a long winter of cancer and cold weather. After the funeral each of her four children came, one at a time, and sat beside her and said, “Mother, now that you’re alone, come and stay with us awhile; we would love to have you.” And to each of them, she answered, “No, I can’t. I can’t leave my garden that long.”
Grandma had already planted peas and carrots and radishes, and without her care and attention, even for a few days, they would die.
Several years ago my father was killed in a farm accident. It was August, harvest time for much of Mother’s garden. We knew that most of her nights were aching and sleepless, and many times I would go to her bedroom at 4:00 or 5:00 in the morning to see if she was asleep only to find her bed empty. I would find her on her knees in the garden, working up and down the long rows, pulling onions and carrots or digging potatoes.
My family’s roots are deep in the soil. As a child, daily I heard my father, a farmer, pray over his stewardship and petition the Lord for blessings on our crops and land as we knelt around the kitchen table in family prayer. From a very young age I realized that the wind, the rain, the late frost in the spring are of elemental concern to those whose livelihood is dependent upon the cycle of planting, tending, and harvesting a crop.
For my grandmother and mother, the elements were also of vital concern, for even before the Church’s emphasis on having a year’s supply, they had a food storage program. Their gardens provided the family’s root cellar with potatoes, carrots, and squash, and the cupboards with jars of tomatoes, beans, peaches, cherries, and picked beets—the family’s sustenance during the long winter months.
For the generations of our family, however, a garden has provided something even more essential and life-giving than potatoes and peaches. We till the soil and dress and weed it, and it rewards us not only with fresh fruit and vegetables to eat and put by, but with binding family traditions, cohesiveness, and communication, with moral nourishment to cope with daily life.
For several years after Grandpa’s death, Grandma repeatedly denied the pleas of her children to come live with them because she was committed to her garden. Though it grew smaller each year and certainly didn’t remain a great factor in keeping her pantry full, it did keep her in her own home, taking care of herself and her house, basically independent from social and familial assistance.
Grandma loved company, and a day spent with her was most likely spent in her garden or talking about it. In the winter the conversation was sure to be about the severity of the weather. Was it cold enough to kill flower bulbs left in the ground? Would it damage the fruit trees? Would the snow pack in the mountains provide water all summer long? In the early spring her south-facing windows were lined with pots and tubs and cartons full of seedlings to be transplanted outdoors when the weather was warm enough.
In the summer and fall, part of every visit to Grandma was spent with her in the garden watering and weeding, learning from her vast knowledge of plants, gleaning from her years of experience as a gardener. The conversation would often drift to her and Grandpa’s early days together or the time when my father was a boy. Her stories were never boring or preachy, and I came to appreciate the heritage she passed on to me.
Gardening at Grandma’s was fun, but gardening at home was work. Being sent to the garden alone to face long rows of tiny, spindly; carrots to thin or peas to pick was torture. The only compensation was being able to listen without adult comment to the transistor radio I hooked onto my belt. That kind of gardening—the hot hours spent alone on long rows—was of a different variety, however, than the early morning hours spent with Mother and Daddy.
Sometimes there was so much farm work to do that the only time left to take care of the garden was early morning. Those times the whole family, or at least everyone over six years old, would pitch in to get the garden done before breakfast.
On those mornings, Mom would wake us very early, so early the sun was only a pink fringe of light on the horizon. Warning us not to waken the little children and baby with our groans, she would coax us up and get us out-of-doors while the grass was still shining silver with dew and our shadows were long and thin. We collected our hoes from where they were leaning against the side of the shed and, still sleepy, we walked silently to the garden.
There is magic in very early morning air, a magic that creates an aura of reverence for the earth and life and those who share it with you. Perhaps that is why, on those early mornings, I talked to my parents and listened to them talk to me. My radio was left in the house, the disc jockeys left asleep somewhere.
I don’t remember what we talked about on those early mornings, and I’m sure the conversation wasn’t important to me at the time. But I do remember picking corn, hilling up potatoes, and thinning lettuce, unconsciously learning about gardening, about loving the earth and reaping what you sow, by doing it with my parents.
After breakfast, when the rest of the family had gone out to the fields, Mother and I would sit in the shade of the porch and snap beans or husk corn and talk. Maybe she would sing, old songs about mares and does eating oats, songs I’d never heard and thought silly. Sometimes we’d argue about the length of my skirts or when I could start wearing lipstick and nylons. The tasks were important, but not as important as the time I spent with Mother listening to her stories, laughing with her, digesting her values and knowledge and storing them for the time in the future when I would discard them or use them and find them invaluable.
Occasionally Mother would tell me stories about when she was a girl and saved aluminum gum wrappers for the war effort, or when she took mustard sandwiches to school and had only one Sunday dress in her closet. I knew it was supposed to make me appreciate all the clothes in my own closet, but I really didn’t believe that anyone had ever had only one dress.
Thriftiness was a way of life for Mother—something she did without thinking and practiced without preaching. The garden and orchard were an extension of her thriftiness. So were the forays she led us on as we gleaned from neighboring fields of asparagus, strawberries, potatoes, and grapes that had already been harvested. Waste not, want not was her motto, a principle impossible not to inculcate into my own credo as I lived and worked with her every day.
The thing I liked the least in the garden and the one my mother was the most dedicated to was the ritual of the raspberries. The picking of raspberries had rules that not even the Fourth of July celebration could alter. They had to be picked every other day, and the bushes had to be picked perfectly clean, lest the berries left got too ripe and had to be thrown away at the next picking.
If the day the raspberries were to be picked fell on the Fourth of July, it was the celebration’s loss, not the raspberries’. Mother would get up early, make her salad and fried chicken for the community picnic, go watch the parade, take the salad to the park, and be home by 1:00 P.M. to pick the raspberries. To her credit, she never made me skip the celebration to help her.
I never could understand Mother’s obsession with gardening and the elimination of weeds in particular. It drove me crazy as a child. She seemed bent on wiping out every weed on earth all by herself. It didn’t matter what the occasion—we could be all dressed up hurrying to get to piano lessons, or going to a movie in town, or walking through the garden with Sunday afternoon company—the sight of a single weed would stop her dead in her tracks. No one continued until Mother had rid that small spot of earth of its thistle.
As each of her children grew up and left the nest to set up homes of their own, Mother encouraged us to have a garden. She did everything she could to make having our first garden as painless as possible. She helped with the hard work of preparing the soil, the tedious work of thinning crowded inch-high radishes, the ugly work of killing potato bugs and squashing tomato worms, and she rejoiced with us when we picked our first tomato. Perhaps she was so eager for us to establish our gardens because she knew so well the reasons for having a garden.
After her fifth baby was born, Mother became deeply depressed. She became more and more melancholy. A doctor told her she had an ulcer and gave her sugar pills in hope of helping her, but she discovered his deception and only became more angry and depressed.
Then she went to the physician who had been her family doctor when she was a child. Now old and wise, he sat her down beside him and talked with her. After listening to her troubles for a long time, he kindly asked her two questions: Did she have a job in the Church, and did she have a garden? She said yes, she had a church calling, and no, she did not have a garden. She didn’t see how she could manage one. He said, “Melba, spring is here. Plant your garden. Work in it every day, and if you wake up at 4:00 in the morning and can’t sleep—go out and work in it; make it the best garden you’ve ever had.” And so began her healing and her continued fascination with gardening.
Two years after Daddy died, Mother gave up her garden, except for a few tomatoes and her beloved raspberries. Her heroic efforts to keep the family farm going left no time for gardening, in the very early morning or otherwise.
Last year Grandma fell and broke her hip and became confined to a bed and a wheelchair. She, too, finally gave up her garden. But I, who hated weeding and transplanting and thinning as a child, find that I carry the love of gardening in my soul.
My first garden was at Utah State University. My husband, Stan, took a vegetable crops class, and the professor so deliciously described each of his subjects that Stan came home eager to raise his own broccoli, eggplant, and Golden Jubilee sweet corn. Our acreage was tiny—a 10-by-15-foot plot provided to students who wanted to reduce their food bill by growing their own. We tried growing everything but didn’t have much success with most of it in the high, thin mountain air of northern Utah. But we had a great time, and Mother was so thrilled when I told her of our efforts that she brought Walla Walla sweet onion sets all the way from Washington for us to try.
Today Mother is still bringing me starts of this and shoots of that to try in my garden. So were my friends and other relatives, until Stan finally raised his hands and said, “Stop! There isn’t one more inch of space in this city yard for another iris root or new tomato variety!”
And as I walk through my garden, I see it really is crowded—crowded with memories and tradition. On one side of the gate is a common lilac, a start from the start Mother brought with her from Idaho as a new bride, and on the other side is a double French lilac—from my mother-in-law’s yard. From her garden also I have poppies and rhubarb and juniper tams.
In the shade of our patio deck I have hosta and old-fashioned violets from Grandma’s garden. In a corner of the yard are dahlias, evoking memories of a dear friend who passed starts on to me when she moved to New York. Along a wall are gladiolas, the passion of my other grandma, who died when I was a baby but who I curiously wonder about each spring and fall as I plant and retrieve my bulbs. And always faithfully reappearing each spring among the nooks and crannies of a rock garden are my chrysanthemums—brought in their foil-wrapped pots from my father’s graveside after his funeral. They are the last color I see in the fall, the last flowers to bend their heads to the autumn frost.
I know and love each plant—its origin, its eccentricities, its special needs. Each has a story to tell—a part of my life story. This evening as I pass through my garden, we are in a hurry. My son has his first soccer game tonight and we’re all headed for the playing field. It is a lovely time of day, beginning to cool off; the bees are headed for their hives, the air is sweet with columbine and peonies, and I spy a Canadian thistle trying to hide behind a lupine. As my seven-year-old impatiently tugs at my sleeve, saying, “Come on, Mom, we’ll be late; I can’t be late for the first game,” I bend down to ferret out the hapless thistle.