With swathes of verdant greenery and spots of blooming flora, few places have the sacredness and beauty of a garden. With a natural green thumb, my mother introduced me to the art of gardening — she spent years of her young life managing a local greenhouse in a small Michigan town, and her natural propensity to grow and create never quite faltered dissolved. Her deluge of floral beauty is something for the world to admire. Even in the rockiest soil and under the harshest sunshine, she can sustain gardens of intricate beauty and careful tending. Asiatic lilies, her darling, populate our front yard while green ivy tendrils twine along our house walls and window sills. Her long days of planting everything from functional fruit to commercial objects of beauty offer a moment of calm away from a busy life. Her gardening – in any form – is nothing short of an act of love.
On early spring days of rototilling and dirty knees, my mom and I can finally speak the same language: outdoor planning, intrigue, and intrigue. I’ve never been as meticulous and goal-oriented by nature as my mother—my brain is a constant scattering of forgotten plans and tasks—but the specificity required for gardening tempers that. We tacitly understand the exact depths and distances between new holes dug for fresh seedlings and exactly which plants should be placed where. This is a delicate art; it takes a full mutual understanding of how each plant explains its wants and needs. We can place our sweet lavender shrub near cheerful marigolds, but know very well how to keep onions away from the nutrient-choking peas and pole beans. Every year we spend weeks together in this way – working together to create the perfect garden that is unparalleled in its beauty and functionality.
To create our art, my mom and I shop early in the season for a variety of colors, shapes, and smells. We share the same habit of waking up at sunrise, and this common rhythm persists on this important ritualized day. We have breakfast, she brews green tea while I sip a morning coffee and develop our garden shopping strategies. Together we determine which store to visit, which plants to keep an eye on and which annuals will regrow on their own this season. In particularly well-thought-out seasons, my mother sketches her ideal garden on the next napkin and marks where and what to plant with an earthen canvas she has elaborately designed.
When spring turns to summer, the garden begins to develop into a living entity. No longer confined to our pre-planned seedling coordinates, juvenile plants will grow and spread of their own accord into a living, breathing biome.
In its newly discovered splendor, our garden is transformed into a lush landscape of flowers and vegetables when summer arrives. With just light touches of tender weeding and watering, our garden is a nearly self-sufficient masterpiece. The time-tested formula of flower placements and strategic veggies results in an admirable array of flower colors and homemade salads. After sweating through the growing pains and need for constant maintenance, my mom and I have a garden to just enjoy – a garden we created together. No more washing dirt from our hands, removing dirt from under our fingernails; Instead, our fingers exist to pluck vegetable-shaped jewels from our garden.
On those long evenings near our garden, I am reminded of how much I am my mother’s daughter. We share the same smile, and before long our laugh lines will be reflections of our joy in old age. Our foreheads share a frown of joy that raises eyebrows as we enjoy the sardonic gossip we both love to share in the sanctity of our late summer garden. The sun seems to be particularly bright and vital these days. We share meals, slow mornings and gentle evenings, admiring our living work of art. When some flowers begin to close and vegetables stop multiplying, the season of creation will begin to halt and our common language will begin to stutter. At this point it is clear that the evening of the growing season is coming to an end and we are watching the last breaths of our garden.
As the hot summer sun slowly fades into autumn, our garden becomes a dying relic of the sun. The time you spend in the garden is about to be tied up in ribbons and put away.
Vegetables have completely lost their numbers, and few flowers survive chilly autumn nights. Now is the perfect time to pluck and perpetuate those leftover bits of beauty — together, my mom and I pull bouquets of lavender from her wilting bushes, snip buds from black-eyed susan and echinacea, and perpetuate the soft petals between napkins under a thick stack of books press. These little bits of petals and buds are all that’s left of our garden as temperatures drop and the world gets colder.
The arrival of autumn creates an unfathomable distance between me, my family and the garden. As our garden slips away, I reenter the “real world.” My college year begins and now I’m again prone to introversion and accidental isolation – I exist in a lonely corner outside of my home. tensions rise. I can carry the garden’s immortal symbols—flower compacts, cuttings—but the shadow cast never does justice to the original object.
Although I’ve spent almost two decades of my life with this garden, I only recognize its final moment after its funeral is over. Unfortunately, winter is coming.
Even two decades of Michigan winters couldn’t have prepared me for my first winter in Ann Arbor—even though the temperatures and snowy mornings hadn’t changed, every morning and night I spent at college felt colder and lonelier than any winter I had spent at home. Though it sits well in a range of outdoor spaces and foliage-filled rooms, a campus without its own backyard just feels hollow. As a protest against this austere season, I carefully tend the few plants I brought from home. Two succulents battle the winter cold alongside a much more vulnerable potted plant. The kale won’t make it, but the succulents serve as living reminders of home. And while I can fill my room and my life with these moments, the dull ache of missing home is unrelenting.
On some of my darkest nights, I unconsciously switch to a playlist of Led Zeppelin’s Tangerine—of course it’ll be one of the first songs played. This song is gentle and melancholic for a summer long gone. On those balmy summer afternoons in the garden with my mom while we were gardening, we’d listened to “Tangerine” – I shared that it was my favorite Led Zeppelin song. Perhaps unsurprisingly, she agreed it was her favorite too – so fitting that we find more common ground within the walls of our garden. Since then, it’s been impossible to hear “Tangerine” without feeling the summer sun dancing on my skin and my mother’s warm smile.
It feels chaotic contemplating my absence while still being able to reflect on the annual growth and decline in my memories. To escape the isolation of the dorm room, I recently returned home to help plant a brand new vegetable garden in my backyard. It was a family effort—even my dog tinkered while we covered ourselves in dirt and bent over freshly dug peppers. It was our greatest achievement to date: we had spent several weekends planning, shopping and finally planting. This garden has been my mother’s daydream for almost a decade – a daydream she more than deserves to see come to fruition. As a sight of admiration and love, my mother controls and admires her garden all day: once in the morning, once in the evening and when my father comes home from work. When I return to my apartment in Ann Arbor, I receive photos and messages of love for my mother’s garden.
Each time I return home, I am reminded that our garden will always be there, no matter the season. Even in its wintry decay, the fenced barren ground harbors an outline of what will always return, with or without me.
Statement columnist Ava Burzycki can be reached at [email protected].