The Gardener

The potatoes need to be dug up. The long-dead green bean vines need to be pulled out and composted. The cucumbers haven’t been harvested in at least two weeks; their ability to materialize and then immediately engorge themselves on the vine is nothing short of magical. Sadly, the cukes we have eaten, no matter how small I pick them, are bitter and no amount of salt has been their salvation. And the tomatoes — we planted 14 of them, maybe six varieties, but 14 different plants. They’re prolific, to say the least. The squirrels and birds are getting well-fed on the abundant crop. I can’t eat them all. We talked about salsa, tomato soup or even spaghetti sauce, but haven’t picked more than three tomatoes since that wishful conversation three weeks ago. 

The ground is every bit as red as the heavy-laden plants, littered after the crowd dispersed and left their fruit behind to decay without attention because the gardener is gone. He’s not coming back to clean up the messiness of what he so meticulously planned and we then planted. His spreadsheets, order forms, lists, and labeled popsicle sticks now lie in piles I can’t find or make order out of the weeds in their wake.

The zinnias clambering all summer long for the front seat screaming, “SHOTGUN!” are now elbowing each other in the face and tumbling toward the ground, unable to stop the stampede they started and my attempts to fence them in again look paltry in comparison to the original vision of ordered tall down the middle, medium next, then shortest on the outside, cascading heights along both lengths of the flowerbed. Is this overgrowth and death and abundance just because it’s late August or is it because the master planner, the gardener, is gone? I know he’s not coming back. 

I love being in the garden, although double-edged for me. I feel closest to him there, weeding, transplanting, harvesting. And saddest for the same reasons.

I dug up all the potatoes. I started with the pitchfork but couldn’t dig without stabbing one spud on every plunge. The potatoes were too close to the surface; they were planted just before I got here. Helpers from elsewhere came to assist; to be directed and taught by the gardener: how to turn your soil, how to lay the yardstick to measure your stakes’ distance from each other, how to slip the string over the end of the opposite stake making the line taut, how to hoe down the row as you go and exactly what amount of space to leave between each hill, and how to bury them so completely to ensure their growth into brand new potatoes. 

Their greens were beautiful; the prettiest the gardener had ever seen. When he went away I kept watch, kept watering, kept talking to the buried spuds. There were potatoes popping above-ground! It was too soon. They were green like their tops — I had to bury them again, had to coax them back down, give them more time, do the work that the gardener trusted others to do but they weren’t deep enough. I could see evidence. Bucket after bucket after bucket of mulch I shoveled, hauled, dumped and spread. I laid a fresh and false blanket on top of the bed, urging the potatoes in whispered tones: Keep growing; it’s not time yet.

I laid aside the pitchfork and dropped down to my knees. I dug with my hands, cradling each potato to wipe it of the earth dirt clinging to its sides before tossing them into the now mulch-free buckets that buried them back down two months ago.

They aren’t all strong and mighty like a Russet is “supposed” to be, but the gardener worked through me to grow something in the end, something that we did together. And after the harvest buckets were hauled inside, I cried my own buckets of tears, weeping for the gardener whose harvest survives him but lies buried on the surface of the ground, visible beauty decaying, seeding, burying itself until it flowers again in its season.