I recently was sitting in my garden, looking at the chaos, and thought “all those people with those neat garden beds and straight lines of veggies, I wish my garden looked like that.” And then I saw the swallowtail caterpillar on the dill plant. I remembered the garter snake that slithered through the peas, along the fence, and into the goldenrod. I listened to the baby Song Sparrows cheep for mom from their nest in the tall grass I left near the asparagus. Then I thought, “no, this garden is authentically me.”
I find myself in the middle a lot these days. I want to both get rid of all of the stuff in my house and live in simple austerity, but also want to hold onto the memories that come when I see certain items and hold them in my hands. I want to both pick bouquets of wildflowers and put them in a vase on my table, but I don’t want to take them away from the pollinators that need them outside. I want the millions of Gypsy Moth caterpillars on my apple trees to die, but I don’t want to harm any of the other caterpillars going about their non-invasive lives. As they say, you can’t have it both ways.
But there is a beauty to being stuck in the middle. About being able to see from the different sides, levels, and perspectives. The garden exemplifies that. There is always room to tip one way or another, you’re never really stuck. The peas tip and grab onto the dill, but then pull themselves the opposite way by grasping more firmly onto the seed beets.
The volunteer cilantro left in the lettuce bed now helps shade the lettuce from the heat, for which we are both grateful. And the Stinging Nettle – while such a bite to bare skin – surrounds the compost and creates a lovely and supremely healthy food. I both love it and strongly dislike it.
The chaos of the garden makes me think about the adage “Grow where you are planted.” And I do let entirely too many things do that. Again, every year I say to myself “just weed it out of the rows, there’s plenty of purslane elsewhere.” Predictably, every year I let it grow. I harvest it for purslane and strawberry salads, use it to add crunch to sandwiches and toss it in leaf salads. The same is true of lamb’s quarters, amaranth, chickweed, and miner’s lettuce. The edible weeds make the garden more productive, actually, even as they make it messier.
I do draw some lines – mustards don’t get to stay. Dame’s Rocket is plentiful outside the garden, and the speedwell is relentless so it doesn’t matter how much I pull, I’ll never truly get rid of it. The horseradish is getting a bit too confident and spilling out of its corner, we will have a (probably one-sided) conversation this fall. And the brambles don’t belong in the garden – you’re not welcome if you draw blood.
The life that the garden holds is worth the chaos, even if I lament the lack of orderliness at times. In my garden I’ve had so many butterflies I can’t name them all, Spring Peepers, toads, Wood Frogs, Leopard Frogs, garter snakes, milk snakes, Red-bellied Snakes, and a plethora of birds. Hundreds of insects (both beneficial and destructive), and mammals (usually destructive) have also visited.
The garden reflects that balance in me, though. There are straight paths, with wild, feral beds in between. There is a fence, just outside of which is meadow and what continually tries to be young forest. There is order, and there is chaos. Ruled, and unruly.
I think my garden is a shadow of the true dilemma of the human spirit — to follow the rules or to break them, to be calm or be excitable, to be reserved or fearless. I garden like a two-year-old. I know I should plant in neater rows, and it would be easier to maintain if I did so. Logic doesn’t always win (with a two-year-old? Did I need to tell you that?) though. Sometimes I plant things because that’s where I want them, or think they should go, or might be happy. Sometimes I leave things and change what I want because that’s just the way things are.
So, the clump of grass in the back, that every year I say I’m going to cut down, once again has a sparrow nest in it. Dad keeps me company while I garden, I leave a bit of seed on the rock for him. The babies don’t fret when I peek at them. And neither parent bats an eye at my presence as they travel to and fro with mouths full of caterpillars. A garden than nourishes all, not just me. Ah, and there it is. That’s why it feels so right.
Take some time and look around your home – does it nourish all or just you? Food for thought. Like a weed in the garden…
Audubon Community Nature Center builds and nurtures connections between people and nature. ACNC is located just east of Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. The trails are open from dawn to dusk as is Liberty, the Bald Eagle. The Nature Center is open from 10 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. daily except Sunday when it opens at 1 p.m. More information can be found online at auduboncnc.org or by calling (716) 569-2345.
Sarah Hatfield is the Education Coordinator at ACNC.