The garden is a mess right now. This happens every year: we plant in the spring with so much hope and intention, weeding and watering and scouting for sprouts, delighting when the potential we buried in that soil rewards us with growth. It’s such a tangible thing, gardening, and so simple in those early days: water, weed, repeat. And then it gets more complicated: thinning the seedlings, staking the peas, caging tomatoes. After that, the questions begin: To pull the suckers or not to pull the suckers? Why are all these zinnias and cosmos and garden balsam growing where I planted only bush beans? What in the world is this pox of a weed that replicates with furious multiplicity? Why are the tomato roots growing so shallowly? Next it’s time for assault by insects. How do I remove squash bug eggs from zucchini leaves without damaging them? Is that seriously a hornworm on the grapevine? What can I safely spray on aphids? I HATE JAPANESE BEETLES. Then the harvesting: what do I do with seven thousand curly mustard greens? How can I use all of these tomatoes before they froth and ooze all over the countertop? Why doesn’t anyone want any of the 12 zucchini that all ripened within the past 48 hours?
There’s so much learning that happens throughout this process, which is wonderful, but it’s also just SO MUCH WORK. And it’s positively heart-rending when squash borers show up and massacre in their messy and most unpleasant way, when the deer lay waste to crops in minutes that they’d ignored for months, when the cucumber leaves turn yellow and then brown literally overnight. These disappointments are counteracted by gardening success stories, of course: for instance, this year the brown turkey fig was so prolific that we all ate as many of those sweet little jewel-bags as we could, then I made jam, and still there are dozens more on the way. This, after two years of the little tree growing lots of hard little green figs, only to drop all of its fruit before any ripening had a chance to occur–what a surprise to find it flourishing in this, the weirdest year ever! The grapes, too, gave us bountiful bunches, and we even got a handful of blackberries over the course of many weeks. But the stars of the garden, I think, are the volunteers.
This year, our cast of volunteers wasn’t limited to the flowers flourishing where I hadn’t planted them; we also had volunteer tomatoes, basil, lettuce, tomatillos, and exactly one cantaloupe vine, which came up late in the game. These were all children of last year’s plants, seeds that overwintered where they’d fallen, the seasons all having happened to them while they waited for that final frost to pass. These are the seeds that survived, that withstood the slings and arrows nature flung their way, holding within them a spark of their future selves. These were the proto-plants self-selected to LIVE. The word “volunteer” comes from the Latin verb “velle”, which means “to want.” Sure, we’re talking about seeds, but whoever chose the word “volunteer” for these plants recognized some kind of volition, at least etymologically. Does this make these plants predisposed to be hardier or healthier, considering the harrows they’ve endured to make it to the moment they could finally put down roots? Does this mean that they’ve earned themselves a garden plot by virtue of their horticultural fortitude? Is proof of life warrant enough to grant them space to grow?
I don’t know, but I’m glad I let the garden take itself over a little. I finally realized that the prosperous flower patch was likely the work of our backyard birds, who feasted on the seeds nested inside petals last fall then sat on our fence to chitchat and defecate directly into the raised bed underneath. Perhaps the capsule of fertilizer that accompanied these seeds to the ground is the reason the flowers grew to six feet and have bloomed for three months, but I have to say: any seeds that have passed through the digestive tract of a bird deserve some respect. I mean, the gizzard is basically a rock tumbler of an organ, so those little seeds that made it through are the American Ninja Warriors of the garden, and I’m going to let them flex their survival muscles in hopes that next year a third generation of volunteers will poke their little green crowns through the surface of the soil. And I will say to them that their parents went through a lot to give them life, that being a volunteer means more than just saying, “I’ll do it.” It’s not just about giving, it’s about wanting to give. It’s about facing things like a hard freeze, a drought, a gullet and two rough stomachs. It’s about a lot of patience and waiting for good timing, fighting for space and light, incorporating resources in ways that favor health. I will say to them that I watched their parents strive, literally in some cases bending over backwards, to find a way to bloom. I watched them bloom, and why did they bloom? For you.