Here's the first chapter to my new manuscript Sleep, Creep, Leap. Think I finally have the order set.
First Garden First
To be fair, this isn’t my first garden. Technically. And if I really get anal about it, perhaps my first garden was a green bean plant in a Styrofoam cup growing on the window ledge of my first grade classroom. I still remember the smell of that particular soil—very sweet, like sugary cigar smoke mixed with rose petals. Something like that. I remember sticking my finger in the dirt, probing for the bean seed underneath, the feathery give of that soil, the wonder—had the seed opened yet? Was it coming toward the surface? Then the two leaves. Then four. Every morning I’d check on the progress, along with my classmates, and during the day I’d glance over from my desk at the small cup with my name scribbled across the front, uncomfortably angled down the curve so it looked like a crazy person wrote it.
But if one is talking about several plants in the ground, my first garden was out the front patio of my townhome when I moved to Lincoln in 2003 to begin my PhD. The covenants said I could plant things, and that was all my green thumb mother needed to hear. “You need something out here, to give it some life, some character,” she said standing out front after helping me move boxes in with my dad. “You’ll be much happier for it,” she continued, her arms folded across her chest, surveying the grass and vinyl siding, then looking back over her shoulder. “Trust me. Let’s find a nursery.”
So we borrowed my dad’s SUV, picked up lavender, coneflowers, coreopsis, penstemon, a butterfly bush, a rose of sharon on a stick, some arborvitae and boxwood, some plastic edging. When we came back with a full truck my dad asked if we bought the whole store. It seemed like it to me.
Though I was looking forward to the plants, to a mini garden of about thirty square feet, I didn’t really understand what it meant—not to me, or my mother, who I grew up gardening with. Her garden was split in two: maybe two thousand or more square feet out back, and at least that much out front. I often went to nurseries with her early in the morning each summer, sometimes just to get out of the noisy house. I didn’t know hardly anything about growing plants.
My little patio garden in Nebraska was hard work. Thick, wet clay from a sprinkler system that overwatered and made the spade weigh an extra ten pounds. A full day of ripping up grass and planting on the south side in August made me question another proposed trip to the nursery. I had two dozen plants in the ground, raised a few inches in the clay, mulched, watered in. Plants. What now? My parents left me on my own a day later.
Over the years I taught myself how to deadhead by trial and error, never once consulting the internet, and maybe just a few times my mother. “How’s the garden going?” She’d ask on the phone, and I’d reply sheepishly, humbled by the thought that this small space might be called the “G” word. “Going good. Everything doubled in size this year. I even saw a big yellow butterfly on the butterfly bush today.” My mom’s voice jumped as she said, “Oh, I bet that’s a swallowtail. Aren’t they neat?” And I supposed they were. Slowly, ever so slowly, I was getting into my manageable space. An hors d’oeuvre, in many respects. Something that I never consciously connected to my childhood or my mother, and never, until I proposed to my girlfriend and we started house hunting, something I thought of taking much further.
The last summer in the townhome I carved out another ten square feet along the sidewalk and put in some liatris, snow-in-summer, a few more coneflowers, an aster. I didn’t really know what I was doing, but ripping up the sod I knew I’d caught a bug. Those ten feet were a watershed moment, a dam cracking and soon to break. As I babied the new plants with topsoil and mulch, and kneeled on the hard cement pushing my finger into the sweet soil—exploring their growing root zones and pulling out the smallest weeds—I emerged from nearly thirty years of a blurred life I didn’t recognize into a world that suddenly seemed more like home, something I’d always been a part of but never really knew.