With streaks of verdant green and dots of blooming flora, few places hold the same sanctity and beauty as a garden. Gifted a natural green thumb, my mother introduced me to the art of gardening — she spent years of her young life managing a local greenhouse in a small Michigan town, and her natural inclination to grow and create never quite dissipated. Her floods of floral beauty are something for the world to admire. Even in the rockiest soils and under the harshest sunshine, she can sustain gardens of intricate beauty and careful curation. Asiatic lilies, her favorite, populate our front yard, as green vines of ivy snake alongside our house walls and windowsills. Her long days of planting ranging from functional fruits and commercial objects of beauty offer a moment of peace away from a tumultuous life. Her gardening — in every form — is nothing short of an act of love.
On early spring days of rototilling and dirty knees, my mother and I can finally share the same language: outdoor planning, plotting and scheming. I have never been as naturally meticulous and intentional as my mother — my brain is a perpetual scatter of forgotten plans and tasks — but the specificity needed for gardening alleviates this. We silently understand the exact depths and distances between new holes dug for fresh seedlings, and exactly which plants should be placed where. This is a delicate art; it needs an extensive mutual understanding of how each plant explains its wants and needs. We can place our sweet lavender bush near cheerful marigolds, but know very well to keep onions away from the nutrient-suffocating peas and pole beans. Each year we spend weeks together in this way — working to create the perfect garden together, one that is unparalleled in its beauty and functionality.
To create our art, my mother and I shop early in the season for a variety of colors, shapes and smells. We share the same habit of waking up around sunrise, and this shared rhythm holds out throughout this importantly ritualized day. We eat breakfast, she boils green tea as I sip on a morning coffee, devising our garden-shopping strategies. Together, we settle on which store to visit, which plants to keep an eye out for and which annuals will grow back on their own this season. During particularly thought-out seasons, my mother will sketch out her ideal garden on the nearest napkin and mark where and what will be planted, a soil canvas she’s intricately designed.
As spring dissolves into summer, the garden begins to settle into a living entity. No longer restricted to our pre-planned seedling coordinates, the adolescent plants grow and spread into a living, breathing biome of their own volition.
In its newfound glory, our garden turns into a ripe wash of flowers and vegetables as summer arrives. Through only light touches of tender weeding and watering, our garden is nearly a self-sufficient masterpiece. The proven formula of flower placements and strategic vegetable varieties yields an admirable array of floral colors and homemade salads in waiting. After sweating through its growing pains and need for constant attending-to, my mother and I have a garden to simply enjoy — to a garden we created together. Soil no longer needs to be washed away from our hands, dirt picked out from underneath our fingernails; instead, our fingers exist to pluck vegetable-shaped jewels from our garden.
In these long evenings spent sitting near our garden, I am reminded of just how much of my mother’s daughter I am. We share the same smile, and soon enough our laugh lines will be mirror images of our well-aged joy. Our foreheads share a wrinkle of eyebrow-raising delight as we relish in the sardonic gossip we’re both eager to share within the sanctity of our late-summer garden. During these days, the sun seems to shine upon us with extra brightness and vitality. We share meals, slow mornings and soft evenings admiring our living work of art. As some flowers begin to close and vegetables no longer propagate, the season of creation begins to halt, and our shared language will begin to stutter. At this point, it’s clear the evening of the growing season is coming to an end and we’re observing the final inhalations of our garden’s breath.
As the hot summer sun slowly sets into fall, our garden becomes a dying relic of sunshine. Time spent in the garden is close to being ribbon-wrapped and put away.
The vegetables have completely lost their numbers, and few flowers make it through chilly fall nights. Now is the perfect time to pluck up the surviving bits of beauty and immortalize them — together, my mother and I pull apart lavender bunches from their wilting bushes, snip off the buds of black-eyed susans and echinacea, and immortalize the soft petals by pressing them between napkins underneath a hefty book stack. These small bits of petals and buds are all that remain from our garden as temperatures drop and the world gets colder.
The arrival of fall creates an unfathomable distance between myself, my family and the garden. As our garden slips away, I re-enter the ‘real world.’ My academic year starts, and now I’m once again prone to introversion and accidental isolation — I exist in a lonely corner outside of my home. Tensions rise. I can carry the garden’s immortalized symbols — flower pressings, cuttings — but the casted shadow never lives up to the original object.
Despite spending almost two decades of life with this garden, I never recognize its final moment until after its funeral has passed. Regretfully, winter arrives.
Even two decades of Michigan winter couldn’t have prepared me for my first Ann Arbor winter — though the temperatures and snowy mornings hadn’t changed, each morning and night spent at college feels colder and lonelier than any winter I had spent at home. Though situated well within a range of outdoor and foliage-filled spaces, a campus with no garden of my own simply feels hollow. As a protest to this barren season, I carefully tend to the few plants I’ve taken from my home. Two succulents carry on as fighters against winter’s chill, alongside a much more vulnerable potted kale plant. The kale will not make it, but the succulents serve as living reminders of home. And while I can fill my room and life with these moments, the dull ache of missing home is unrelenting.
On some of my gloomiest nights, I’ll unconsciously move into a playlist containing “Tangerine” by Led Zeppelin — naturally, it’ll be one of the first songs to play. This song is soft and melancholic for a summer that has long since passed. On those balmy, summer afternoons in the garden with my mother, we had been listening to “Tangerine” as we gardened — I shared that this was my favorite Led Zeppelin song. Perhaps unsurprisingly, she agreed that it was also her favorite — fitting, then, that we find more common ground within our garden’s walls. From then on, it has been impossible to hear “Tangerine” without feeling the summer sun dance upon my skin and my mother’s warm smile.
It feels messy to be reflecting on my absence while still being able to revisit the annual growth and decline in my reminiscing. As an escape from dorm-room isolation, I recently returned home to help carve a brand new vegetable garden in my backyard. This was a family effort — even my dog puttered around as we covered ourselves in dirt and hunched over newly unearthed bell peppers. It was our greatest feat yet: we had spent multiple weekends planning, shopping and finally planting. This garden has been a daydream of my mother’s for nearly a decade — a daydream that she more than deserves to see manifest into reality. As a sight of admiration and love, my mother checks and admires her garden throughout the day: once in the morning, evening and when my father comes home from work. When I return back to my Ann Arbor apartment, I receive photos and notes of love for my mother’s garden.
With every return home, I’m reminded that our garden will always exist, regardless of the season. Even in its winter decay, the fenced-in barren soil houses an outline of what will return again and again, with or without me.
Statement Columnist Ava Burzycki can be reached at email@example.com.