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  • Toni Burns

No Secret Gardens

“Marriage is like a garden, and a well tended garden grows better, right?”

Jed & Katie, Driggs, ID

Three couples in a neighborhood had gardens. One plot had gone to seed and weeds. One was visually stunning but produced little variety or edible product. The last was the least orderly but the most productive. The three couples decided to get together for coffee and to discover the reasons for the third garden thriving.

The weedy garden belonged to Jim and Martha, who'd planted it when they first married. Over the past decade, they''d gradually let it go to seed. Too busy with their separate interests to spend time gardening together, they've stopped planting, and now the only vegetables are volunteers. Even those are spindly and mostly inedible. Jim and Martha occasionally make a half-hearted effort at watering or weeding, but the work quickly becomes too ponderous and they settle for picking a few stalks of shriveled celery or a bit of blighted broccoli to add to a salad. The end result is tossing the entire meal in the trash and grabbing a bite out. Despite their initial hopes, neither partner seems to care about the garden anymore. Jim complains to his friends that the failure is Martha’s fault for not weeding and Martha voices a similar criticism of Jim for not watering.

The second garden was begun by Sally and Sam five years ago. Sally has taken over the design, what should be planted, and what work needs to be done at what time. She does not like to let Sam help because, “he doesn’t know anything about gardening.” Sally would rather tell Sam what to do and how to do it, or not let him assist at all, lest his errors mar the garden's aesthetic. The rows are perfectly straight, weeds are plucked or sprayed or set afire or otherwise immediately eradicated. Sally has coordinated the planting areas by flower color, regardless of whether the blooms are ornamental or from vegetables. Since a perfect pallet is Sally’s aspiration, incompatible plants are placed next to each other, creating a weak growing environment. Fertilizers and expensive powders from the nursery keep it all supported. Consequently, the garden is visually striking, but the vegetables and fruits are bland and woody. Sally recently confessed to her friend, Mike, that she supplements meals with Whole Foods produce. Sam has also confided in a co-worker his penchant for secretly snacking on fast food on the way home from work.

Mike, meanwhile, lovingly tends the third plot with his partner, Harry. Their garden is as haphazard as Sally’s is orderly. Each year, plants are moved to different locations, intermingled with others based on compatibility rather than appearance, and a variety of weeds are allowed residency. Though it does not have the clean aesthetic lines of Sally and Sam’s garden, and shares a few weeds with Jim and Martha’s, Mike and Harry's garden produces such a bounty that the pair have taken to selling at the Farmer’s Market what they cannot consume or can.

When these three couples got together for coffee, Sally started the conversation by bluntly stating her distaste for the appearance of Mike and Harry’s garden. A stunned silence from everyone, including her husband, prompted a back pedal, “but it seems to work for you two.” Jim hesitantly agreed with Sally that Mike and Harry’s gardening style was not his cup of tea, but that the results were impressive. The rest of the group begged to know "the secret" of the successful garden. Harry broke it down like this:

There really is no secret. After years of gardening together, we learned to try new things and to move old ones around to see if something we’ve always kept in the shade might flourish with a bit more light shining on it. We listen to each other’s ideas and work with the other’s strengths. The perfect pea border is Mike’s; the chaotically cool bean bounty is mine.

We don’t worry about every weed, because nothing is perfect. The imperfections, the dandelions and milkweed, bring the bees and butterflies to pollinate what we actually want to grow. Sally and Sam, your garden is beautiful from the outside, but your cucumbers are hollow and your eggplants are seedy. Sally, your garden doesn’t have to look like ours. Every couple’s garden is different, beautiful and unique. Let Sam be part of the effort. It’s his garden, too. Sure, he might make mistakes. He might also come up with a few ideas you never thought of; you two can learn to grow together.

We have learned to let go of the little things. If we spent all of our time worrying about a few weeds, we might not see the big problems (like a vole infestation) or the big rewards (like a bumper crop of potatoes from the two potatoes we missed digging up the previous year).

Jim, Martha, you need to make a decision about your garden. Not every garden can be saved, and that’s okay. But, if you think what you planted years ago can be salvaged, you two have a lot of work to do. If you are both willing to rethink your priorities, what you are able to grow together may surprise you.

We just keep trying, listen to each other’s ideas, find humor in the failings, support each other through the hail storms, and keep working on the garden together.

The secret is: Dig, plant and water together. There is no secret to a garden.


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