His garden in October is about beginnings. He’s spread the compost, rich with minerals, on all the beds that have been raked clean.
In a long marriage, one that stretches from boundless horizons with large, extended families through births and deaths, life-threatening illnesses, world-altering terrorism, authoritarianism, and quarantine, you see your mate and your choices through evolving prisms.
In the second half of October, normally a bracing passage of endings for me as the warmth of Indian summer decisively gives way to the chill of autumn, the man I have loved for 25 years has a spring in his step. He is spreading out the compost for next year’s garden and planting his beloved garlic, the first crop for the new season. For him, it is a beginning.
When we met, I found him magnetic and handsome, funny and kind, an intellectually curious and sophisticated banker. He was a warm and indulgent boyfriend with an easy, hearty laugh. I bet that he’d be a loving and patient husband and father. But who knows about these things? Sometimes we make the wrong bet. So many of my incredible friends have been unlucky with theirs.
In addition to his obsessive sports fandom, (Giants, Mets, Rangers; I was sports agnostic but played along) my husband had this funny little hobby of gardening. He’s been doing it since he was in college growing plants from seed on his dormitory window sills. He’d built a dozen or so raised beds of vegetables at his parents’ home on Fire Island by the time he was 25. I gave this avocation of his a passing glance and figured it was better to bring things to life than kill them like the weekend hunters some of my friends dated, and I left it at that. And yet when we chose to write our wedding vows, his gardening came back to me-- his nurturing patience and dedication; his abiding delight in making a living thing thrive that it might sustain others.
When we built our home, his priority was a large vegetable garden. I agreed, feeling generous and indulgent. As long as nothing was required of me, he could garden til the cows came home. He built raised beds of untreated wood, started a compost pile in the corner, committed to growing only organic. Seed catalogues piled up in our mailbox and he poured over them obsessively, as if plotting world domination, one shoot of chlorophyl at a time. When he took his catalogues to the bathroom with him for a long sit down, I would tease, “Why don’t you read porn like a normal man?” He would laugh. He created Excel spread sheets each season-- noting which seeds worked, which did not. What was tasty, what too starchy or too hot. What would go into which bed the next year to ensure the crops were rotated. As we had one baby and the next, and then the next, they all toddled out to the garden each season to “help Daddy,” and that was a glorious double gift to me. My husband and his garden gave me rare moments of quiet, time to hear the music of my soul over the din the world’s demands on me, content in the knowledge that the rest of my family was happy making things grow together.
The funniest thing to me was the delight he took in giving the vegetables away, in bringing pleasure to others with the healthy, delicious fruits of his labor. The man pretty much only eats vegetables himself at gunpoint. The challenge and reward to him is in making the produce flourish and able to nourish. He has little personal attachment to actually eating his own provisions. To me, the joy is in receiving his fresh, colorful gifts and creating delicious meals to share with those I love. We enjoy his garden on parallel paths.
We’ve grown many times more food than we could ever eat ourselves. Our friends playfully suggest that he should give up banking and open up a farm stand to distribute his product. I love this man who loves his garden, so I make it my business to spread his organic care packages far and wide. As he brings pound after pound of potatoes and tomatoes and peppers and onions and a dozen other delights to our door, I drive all over creation sharing them. He makes sauce from our tomatoes, onions, garlic, oregano, and basil; I give most of it away.
At the height of demands on him from career and small children, when life’s responsibilities meant he didn’t manage to pick all he grew, abhoring waste trumped my desire for quiet repose. I cracked and went out and harvested. Turns out, it wasn’t so bad. In fact, there was something primal and deeply satisfying and even meditative about bridging that garden-to-table gap with my very own hands. And then, somehow, the soil’s siren song sang to me some more. To my surprise, I found I enjoyed weeding too. You could take out your aggressions on a weed, purge the weed-y evils and fears of the world with a single violent yank, and in so doing, create a pristine bed, a paragon of calming OCD pleasures; a thing of beauty, a happy place. Time in the garden actually gave me the same peace of mind that I’d thought I could only achieve away from it.
During the growing season, my husband does succession planting, each week painstakingly planting a new, carefully-vetted set of bean plants so we have beans all summer, and sungold cherries, heirloom tomatoes, parsley and basil, squash and cukes. He measures out each seed hole a precise distance from the next as prescribed in his gardening bibles, and revels in the tedium (to me) and sacrament (to him) of gardening by a meticulous graphic design, while I merrily, madly, randomly yank weeds and reap what he’s sown on the other side of the garden where succulent crops overflow and his interest has waned. He’s hooked me.
After 21 growing seasons together, we have settled into new rhythms with our garden, now largely without the enthusiastic participation of our kids. By mid-October this year, our children have been away at college for nearly two months and the garden has pretty much exhausted itself. All that remains are a few beds of spices and peppers for me to pick and eat and share. This fall, as I have for the last several, I have found myself clinging to every last vestige of our verdant bounty. The attachment crept up on me. But now I mourn the end of each crop as one plant after the next exhausts itself and succumbs.
When I went out to the garden today, the men who now help us with it had taken down the bone dry and wizened stalks in most of the beds, leaving the expanse of it looking, to me, just like you’d picture a garden in October--like an ending; a little sad and barren. I could relate. With my children moving toward independence and my body a roadmap of battle scars large and small, often I, too, feel like a garden in October.
But when I look at Steve in his garden on this October day, I see an almost wild-eyed smile of anticipation on his face. His garden in October is about beginnings. He’s spread the compost, rich with minerals, on all the beds that have been raked clean. He is readying these old friends for their return engagement when the weather grows warm again. My husband looks at this barren garden of ours and sees a promissory note for the dividends of springtime. Garlic Planting Day is his favorite date in the gardening calendar, the annual first day of new beginnings. He’s up early, measuring tape at the ready, his mind reeling with possibilities. After all these years and life changes, he is flush with what he now sees as our yin/yang joint mission, readying our cornucopia/sanctuary for the next year. As I head back to the house, arms filled with his peppers, cilantro, and parsley, I catch him looking at me with a surpassing love and gratitude that melts my heart. I strain to feel beautiful these days, so I am especially grateful for this besotted look. Reflected in his eyes, I am Garlic Planting Day made flesh-- fecund, tantalizing, full of promise. Suddenly, a garden in October is a thing of beauty. The look on his face is so arresting, so full of yearning, that I dare hope he might start eating vegetables one day.
Sharon Dizenhuz is a former anchor and senior reporter at New York 1 one news, the 24-hour news channel. She is hard at work writing a coming of middle age novel that follows a group of friends as they step into the buzzsaw of menopause and come out stronger than ever. She loves her old women friends. And her new ones.
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