I am a gardener – with a pinched nerve, an aching back, and knees criss-crossed with grass stains to prove it. There is dirt so deeply embedded under my fingernails, I will need a degree in archaeology to dig it all out. Over the past few weeks, while I divided perennials, planted annuals and spread manure with reckless abandon, I was reminded how similar gardening is to parenting. I hope I can use the lessons I’ve learned in the dirt towards raising my own two human bloomers.
As a novice gardener, I was smitten with flowers the same way a new mother falls in love with her infant’s little mouth and toes. Eventually, I learned that both plants and babies need help to grow healthily and steadily upwards. Adoration gave way to hard work.
Sixteen years ago, when I quit my career in publishing to start a family, the desire to garden overwhelmed me. Like motherhood, there was a learning curve and in early March of that year, I planted a wooden half-barrel of pansies on my porch.
The next morning, I deeply watered the container as the experts suggest, believing that the small, nodding heads were thanking me for taking good care of them; however, later that day I found all the pansies frozen in a miniature ice rink. In my enthusiasm, I forgot that the temperature was forecast to be well below freezing. How ironic that the name “pansy” comes from the French “penser”: to think. I hadn’t. Lesson learned.
When my first son, Charlie, turned ten months old, I resolved to follow the directions of the famous parenting- by- self-torture author, Richard Ferber, who postulated that babies can learn to soothe themselves into slumber. Clearly, he never met my son. After three hours, in a row, of Charlie bawling, a blessed moment of silence descended. This eye of our storm was followed by a brain freezing scream. Charlie had worked himself into such a furor that he pitched his hot body over the crib bars and onto the floor below. My earlier investment in a three-inch thick rug paid off that night.
I scooped up my son and we fell asleep on the couch in his room, sniffling in each other’s arms — never to attempt the evil Ferber method again. A month later, Charlie voluntarily decided to start sleeping through the night. How ironic that I’d listened to the reigning expert when all I needed was to pay attention to my child’s voice. Another lesson learned.
It’s easy to find gardening metaphors that apply to child-rearing. There are the roots of family and the sunshine of love; the water of knowledge and the clean air of healthy living. But, there are less obvious comparisons, too.
Some plants, like some children, are well-behaved. The licorice plant is a please and thank you trailing plant; it grows slowly and neatly, maintaining its place and shape. I know some kids who behave this way – but, I’m not related to them.
Lilac blooms in spring exude happiness. After flowering, the lilac grows taller with lovely heart-shaped leaves. Quite often, lilac roots put out underground runners that sprout new shoots all over the garden. This is my seven year-old son, Harrison, sweet and full of heart. His toys and building creations, however, appear in every room of my house, and no sooner do I put them away when new ones sprout up in other spots, daring me to cut them down.
There is a neat perennial that grows in whatever direction I gently bend its blooms. This flower is called the “obedient plant” – again, not my children. At fourteen, Charlie is more of a sweet potato vine, sprawling out every which way no matter what I do to train his limbs. He grows at a frenzied pace and often needs more sustenance than most, but the complex hues of his insights are more than worth the maintenance. Charlie is inquisitive and a natural debater making him an electric foil for the other growers in our family.
I used to make hopeful plans to relax in my garden on a lawn chair with a cold drink and a good book. But, as soon as I put my feet up, I noticed a tree that required immediate pruning. While attending that task, I saw that the daisies needed dead-heading right away. Then I rushed to set out some containers of beer to lure the slugs and stop them eating the beautiful foliage of my Hostas which were showing signs of damage. With the speed of a dragonfly and the flitting of a moth, my restful summer afternoon disappeared into dusk. Dirty and sweaty, I showered and climbed into bed. I felt exhausted and besieged by the all the work not yet done. The beautiful garden I’d created became a gorilla on my back!
Three summers ago, I injured my shoulder – gardening. I was forced to sit on a chair with a cold drink and a good book. A week of recuperation set the stage for this personal epiphany: the garden grows just fine without me. The basic bones were established years ago through my efforts and the colours and textures mix together in wonderful disarray. If the Hostas have slug holes, they are invisible from a distance and besides, slugs have to eat, too.
Nowadays, I ensure that my garden has everything it requires in the spring. Then, I kick back and watch it do its crazy thing. We enjoy each other more that way.
While my sons are the focal points of my human garden, I’m learning that I shouldn’t be intricately involved in every moment of their growth either. I will always feed them understanding and offer them guidance, but to flourish they need freedom to learn how to survive the elements on their own — just like any rugged perennial worth its spot in my flower garden.
Now, if I could only learn to put my feet up inside my house!