5 min read

The Unresolved Gardener

A 2021 resolution to accept grace, I guess

I micromanage my tomatoes.

This will come as a surprise to absolutely none of the people in my life. Last fall, I built and planted a raised garden with two goals: first, to learn the rhythms of the garden before the real planting season took off, so I could afford to make some mistakes; and second, to give myself a focus that’s unrelated to my work and that I couldn’t possibly turn into a Productivity Exercise.

At the time, in an open thread, I wrote this:

I’m working hard to build up a lot of potential. How can I be sure I won’t waste it? How can I make the most of it? This is the perpetual quest of my life: to wring meaning and value out of everything I encounter, as much as possible, as much as there is. This is a useless endeavor, not only because waste is in many ways unavoidable, but also because the kind of potential I’m building up here — the potential for life — is by nature going to be out of my control. I want to plant things that will inevitably grow in ways I haven’t planned, ways I couldn’t predict. I want this garden to teach me, and for that to happen, it has to be independent of my aims and values.

Since then, I’ve done an extremely mixed job of accepting the independence of my garden.

Every pea plant I put in died almost instantly, as did the eggplants and the stevia. Some Wicked Creature devoured all of my cabbages (and one of my brussels sprout plants, although the Wicked Creature barfed that one right back up just a few feet away, to my grim satisfaction). Tinkerbell, ever-unpredictable, dug up and ate several of my seed potatoes before I gave up and moved the bags to one of the bare patches of raised bed where she couldn’t reach them anymore.

Other than that, everything has been going swell. I did a good job balancing the clay-heavy soil with the right amendments. It drains well, but hangs onto the right amount of moisture. The plants that have survived have put down deep, stable root systems, probably thanks to my overzealous dedication to seeding mycorrhizal fungal exchange systems.

Even through the first frost, the lettuce, kale, and peppers have continued to thrive. The strawberries and raspberries seem more-or-less dormant, but I’m told that their new leaves and stubborn refusal to spread too far too fast is a good indicator of future growth. The brussels sprouts are undergoing some arcane leaf process that is opaque to me but seems to indicate happiness. The artichoke and potatoes are completely unstoppable. There are two separate ant colonies (or maybe one huge ant colony with two separate exits), which the internet assures me are probably doing a good job of keeping pests out of my plants’ roots.

I have plans for January and February planting that should result in a bright and abundant spring harvest. For the most part, I walk around in my garden, admiring the plants and telling them how proud I am of them, harvesting things when there are things to harvest and adding dirt to my potato plants as they send up bright green shoots through the soil. Overall, things are going much better than I could have predicted.

But I’m still restless.

Because of these fucking tomatoes.

When I moved here, there were three big tomato plants in the yard already. They’d gone bushy from neglect. One of them had devoured its cage. I read up on tomato care and did some harvesting and a tiny bit of pruning, and the plants exploded with fruit. I spent my summer making tomato jam to freeze, so I could spread out that perfect sweet summery flavor throughout the colder months, when the plants would stop producing and maybe even die off.

…Except that the plants never stopped producing.

Temperatures fell. We had a terrifying windstorm that lasted for several days, and a couple of thunderstorms, too. Temperatures dipped below freezing, and I woke up to find my artichoke covered in a thin layer of ice. (The artichoke didn’t care. I suspect the artichoke doesn’t care about most things. Don’t worry about the artichoke.) And yet still, the tomatoes blossomed. The blossoms turned into fruit, which ripened slower than it had in the summer, but still: it ripened.

I made more tomato jam. I read a lot of advice about how tomato plants aren’t supposed to keep going this long. I told the tomatoes about what I’d read. The tomatoes blossomed.

They began to haunt me: little yellow flowers trembling in harsh winds, getting pummeled by rain, glinting with frost, and then withering away to reveal a little green button that was going to become another fucking tomato.

Sometime around the start of December, a friend who knows things about gardening told me that the tomatoes needed to be reined in. I pruned them back a lot, telling them all the while that they needed to ripen up this last batch of fruits and then calm down for the winter. Enough was enough, I told them. This is not how tomatoes behave.

A couple of days later, I checked on the plants. They were completely different. Half the vines had withered. I felt like a monster. I trimmed away those dead vines, wondering if this could really have been what I was meant to do to these plants, who only wanted to grow. I was certain I’d killed them. I counted it as a lesson learned, and I kept trimming away crisp bits of vine and adding them to the compost pile, and I tucked away my guilt.

And then there was a little more rain, and the fucking tomatoes bloomed again.

I don’t know what to do with this. My grow zone doesn’t support this kind of flourishing. I have done nothing to nourish or nurture these tomato plants, beyond telling them how impressed I am and thanking them every time I take fruit from them. I have no right to this harvest. I did nothing to earn it.

But it’s still happening.

I had thought that accepting the garden being beyond my control would be a matter of accepting failures, of allowing the varmint to eat my cabbages, of apologizing when I disturb a surprising new anthill.

I never imagined that it would be a matter of accepting success.

So anyway, it’s a new year and I always tell myself that I don’t do resolutions, but I always secretly kind of do. Last year, I secretly resolved to be better about staying in touch with far-off friends. (That happened, less through any effort on my part and more because we all became creatures of Zoom.)

This year, I’m going to keep working on accepting that my garden is out of my control. The things I sow will grow in ways I can’t predict. And beyond that, I’m going to try to learn to accept when that results in an unexpected, unearned bounty. I’m going to try to learn that good things are allowed to happen, even if I don’t understand them.

I’m going to try to stop questioning the fucking tomato blossoms.

If you haven’t already, I hope you’ll consider subscribing to this newsletter. The subscriber community is a wonderful and supportive one, and we’re going to spend 2021 finding new ways to stay connected and share experiences. If you already have a subscription, you can also gift a subscription to someone who you’d love to share these experiences with. I would also be personally thankful if you would consider giving this newsletter a shout on social media — your testimony would truly mean the world to me.

Also, I have a book coming out in just a little over a month! You can pre-order The Echo Wife wherever books are sold. Here’s a twitter thread with a lot of different options, if you’d like to avoid supporting monopolies. I’m so excited to share this book with the world.

In the meantime, care for yourself and the people around you. Believe that the world can be better than it is now. Never give up.