Growing Joy


By Yin Nwe Ko

It’s that time of year again. I’m sitting in front of the fire, looking through a small stack of seed catalogues – from High Mowing Organic Seeds, Seed Savers Exchange, and The Maine Potato Lady. Today, though, I love the Fedco catalogue because it is printed on newsprint, with the veggies and fruit depicted not with photographs but with beautiful and sometimes goofy drawings. One is an excellent rendering of someone drawing back a bow and arrow, except the arrow is a pod of peas. In another, some pumpkin-shaped people are admiring a pumpkin. A couple of leaves of the dinosaur kale are cute, happy baby dinosaurs – That kind of thing.
There is no greater sucker for seeds than me. When I flip through these pages of photos, drawings and descriptions, I start dreaming. Oh my, Chicago callaloo. Look how big these leaves are! Wait, hold up, black peanuts? I wonder how they’d do in Indiana. Uh-oh, orange watermelons. It goes on and on, for the enticements are legion and often irresistible, and it makes me think the seed catalogue, though an expression of consumer culture, must be among the very most beneficent.
And then I start filling up my cart: two of this, three of that, five pounds of elephant garlic, where three would more than do. Four packs of butter beans. Oh, they have those Italian red-stemmed dandelions: five of those.
If it were almost anything else, I would say to myself, as my mother occasionally did when I was a kid and had heaped up a mountain of fried potatoes or spaghetti on my plate, “Rossy, I think your eyes might be bigger than your stomach” By which I mean our city lot is precisely a 10th of an acre, and I just bought enough seed … Hang on. Do they have shallots? Gotta get a couple of pounds of those!… to plant an acre. Maybe two or three.
When the packages start arriving in the mail and keep arriving, Stephanie, my partner, and I start giggling, and then sometimes put our hands over our faces and groan, “Oh no!” But the fact of the matter is, whether or not I am thinking it at the moment as I click the arrow button up, up, up, (4, 5, 6 …), we will give away a lot of these seeds. We’ll give them to friends or neighbours or whoever could use them. Not because we’re saints but because we’re gardeners. And if you garden, that’s kinda just what you do.
For example, if we were to take a very quick tour of this garden in a few months, I could point out to you just how many plants have been given to us. Over in the herb bed, growing with the lemon balm and chamomile, are the Egyptian onions Amy gave us. Bryce gave us the black raspberries under the crabapple tree. The figs came from my friend Jay’s father, Mr Lau. Jessica gave us the daffodils. My friend Ada sent some sweet grass, and the roots were diapered in moist paper towels, which now grow out front next to the comfrey Jami gave us. The stand of peonies next to them was dropped off over a decade ago as a housewarming gift by someone whose name I have forgotten. Wait, wait: Andy. His name is Andy, and those flowers make one of my favourite smells on this earth. As does the star magnolia that Crystal gave us. And the lily given by my mother, which she even helped me plant.
Among gardeners, there is a near-constant chatter, asking what you need, asking if you have any, and asking if you could use this. One day, Roro texts, “Hey, do you have a few heads of garlic?” The next day, she called to say she had found a big stand of serviceberry bushes that she wanted to show me. One day, Bunny asks, “Can I get a few of those sweet potatoes?” The next, he says, “I got a haul of chicken of the woods; let me bring it by.” Amy tells us we should come to harvest some of their persimmons, and I bring some of these purple hot peppers that are coming up like crazy. Perhaps this is the creme de la creme when our friend Kayte gives me a packet of seeds she saved from tomatoes we’d given her that were given to us as seedlings by our friend Mark. Back and forth and back and forth it goes.
Why is this back and forth the gardener’s disposition or, more to the point, practice? Because a garden – a healthy, thriving garden – tells us to. Whether we know it or not, we’re just emulating the garden, which is a repository of sharing. During the COVID-19 lockdown, wandering around out back and looking for more places to plant, I noticed that there was a strip between the raised beds and the alley, maybe three or four feet wide. I borrowed our neighbour’s pickup and dug a six-inch trench in the gravel down to the soil, which seemed weirdly worrisome for being beneath the gravel. Then I filled that trench with planting mixes I scrounged from the garage before planting a bunch of sunflowers with seeds we had in our stash. ‘The seeds were four or five years old, and I was planting them into a gravel trench. And although planting seeds is always an act of faith, this qualified maybe a little extra.
About a week later, while I was weeding the trench on my knees, I almost accidentally pulled a sunflower sprout, pushing its pale neck from the soil. But after seeing that one, I then recognized a couple of others in the same state of unfurl. And within a few days, almost all the seeds I’d planted had sprouted and were like a tiny, unevenly staggered green colonnade. In just a few months, lining our alley was a gorgeous family of mismatched sunflowers, several of them taller than I am. I would not infrequently go out to chat with them, by which I mean pour a little water into the trench beneath their feet and run my hand over their delicate faces, features that were also popular with about a zillion pollinating critters.
By the time the temperature started dropping into the low 60s in the early fall, I was noticing on my morning moseys with coffee in hand (gardens are for moseying, note that) teeny bumble-looking bees nestled into the sunflowers. This close, you can tell the flower is being pollinated by these guys, their impossibly beautiful swirl of seeds filling out, nuzzle by nuzzle. And by the time it’s chilly enough that the bees sleep their nights elsewhere, their work has been done, and done well, to which the goldfinches testify.
As far as I am concerned, you will never find a lovelier bird, and these ones – they are like baseball players this way – are crazy for sunflower seeds. They perch on the big grinning face and dig in, stammering their beaks with such passion you will sometimes see shell shards flying and hear what sounds like an Elvin Jones jazz drum solo. And wouldn’t you know, these goldfinches, in their glee, very kindly plant for us several sunflowers, a few just where we want them, and a few we dig up young and replant elsewhere?
I put in the seeds, and the rain and sun brought them up. The pollinators caroused the flowers into seeds, and the birds gobbled the seeds into more plants, and so on and on and on. If we pay just a little bit of attention in a garden, we notice that it’s constant, this sharing. And if we dropped beneath the surface, where so much of a garden’s work happens, with the roots and beetles and worms all busy with their dark labours, we’d see mycelium webbing through that dark, knitting it all together, redistributing nutrients, sharing the wealth. Back and forth and back and forth.
All of which is why I bristle at the idea of gardening as an act of self-sufficiency or independence. I get the premise: Growing what you can’t buy is awesome; knowing where your food comes from is lovely; sticking it to Big Grocery is fun, etc. But a garden, a healthy garden anyway, shows us that no matter how hard you try, no matter how much you earn or stash or hoard or bunker up, you will never be self-sufficient or independent because nothing living is.
Neither bacteria nor bald eagle nor billionaire nor you nor me. In addition to the fact that we all die, the most salient or unifying feature of the living is that we cannot survive without help. Even the most prepped and rugged survivalist, though in his mind prepared to go it free of human help, will not make it very far without the fish and deer and berries and wild greens and firewood and everything that made these possible. To be among the living means to be independent, always and forever, whether you like it or not. It means you are the beneficiary of a largesse so large, so deep, you will never in one lifetime get to the bottom of it.
But instead, by celebrating that kindness—which we do in part by sharing what that kindness has given us—we also might harvest what is planted in that kindness. Just the other day, my mother told me her mother always grew a hearty pinto-type bean they called a Dutch bean, one her grandmother had always grown. Though my mother made a face that I’m pretty sure meant she didn’t love it, my granny did. And it fed my mother all the same. I suspect my great-grandmother Biggie, when she fled Port Gibson, Mississippi, for Youngstown, Ohio, in 1913, brought with her some seeds with which to create the garden she fed everyone from.
We all are made of these stories, even if we do not know them. People saved these seeds because they loved them, and they thought we might love them too. Whoever saved the seeds loved us before they knew us. Our gardens archive that love.

Reader’s Digest May 2024


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