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Home & Garden

Gardening as Therapy

Sometimes a row of vegetables is more than just a row of vegetables.
illustration by Kyung Soon Park

Everyone was planting a garden last year, it seemed; seed sales were booming in 2009. “Vegetable gardening is not just popular again, it’s hip,” declared Organic Gardening magazine, where one expects to read such things. And, of course, the Dems and their stylish first lady plowed the White House lawn for a veggie plot. But in this era of eviscerating seed corn, even Esquire magazine began touting the “guy’s garden.” Forget blondes (unless we’re talking summer squash). Apparently gentlemen now prefer bell peppers, zucchinis, and jalapeños. So do the ladies, actually, including a cardiologist who pressed a napkin full of her homegrown peppers into my hands as I left a Preston Hollow dinner party.

I had always loved digging in the dirt, long before the economic crash, global warming, and my lust for Brandywine heirloom tomatoes. Now, for the first time since I was a child, I had a suitable backyard. I was cheating on my local suburban nursery, pawing through the racks of specialty seeds at North Haven Gardens in Dallas, the Valhalla for green thumb wannabes, when my cellphone rang. My stepfather had been suffering from diabetes and kidney failure and was on dialysis. Now the doctors said he needed open heart surgery.

After I had a good cry in the car, I went back inside the store and retrieved my abandoned shopping basket, purchased my seeds, went home to pack, and drove straight to Austin. Levi, as I always have called him, enjoyed a last supper of gelato before he checked into the hospital, his blood sugar be damned. Afterward, he sat on the gurney, bones jutting from his chest above his hospital gown, his towering frame so fragile now that a bump in the night would later crack his ribs. His legs were swollen, the scarlet skin encrusted with sores that refused to heal. Most terrifying of all was the look on the face of this rough-hewn, unemotional man. For the first time in my life, I saw tears in his eyes and fear.

Levi raised me since I was barely in grade school. When my mother fell ill and became homebound for years, he was the one who took me and my little sister fishing, who bought me my first computer, who lent me his power tools when I wanted a dollhouse and encouraged me (warning me not to tell Mom) to make one. I felt ashamed now of my petty childhood vanities, of my embarrassment at his hard drinking and rough manners. If only he were healthy enough now even to want a beer.

I had visited Levi recently to speak to his doctor about his pallor and exhaustion, but I wasn’t prepared for the grim new prognosis. My stepdad had suffered a silent heart attack, his second, and they concluded the damage was too extensive for bypass surgery. Levi was lucky to be in the care of an excellent private heart hospital, but the doctors couldn’t do much now. “Could he apply for a transplant?” I asked. A beat went by before the doctor answered. “He could,” he said, his tone even. There’s never a good time to face the mortality of a loved one. But Levi was only 55 years old. I had grown close to my biological father later in life, so I was blessed with two dads. I didn’t know what I would do if I lost one of them.

During the long days and nights in the hospital, waiting to see what the docs could do to patch him up, Levi and I passed the time playing chess, watching bad TV, and planning my garden. It was something besides the arrival of the meal cart to keep our minds off things. Levi grew up in West Virginia and Alaska among self-reliant people who tended a kitchen garden no matter how poor the soil or short the growing season. When I was a girl, we rented a community garden plot and marveled at the mutant size of prize-winning vegetables at the state fair. Now Levi had room at home for just a few potted tomato plants. “Don’t be too ambitious,” he advised. “Whatever you’re thinking of doing, do half.” He didn’t want me to become overwhelmed with the work or end up with too much to eat or give away.

Levi’s heart had been pumping at only 18 percent capacity, but the doctors finally released him from the hospital with a couple more stints and a fistful of new prescriptions. Back home, I felt like I was walking underwater. All I wanted to do was wander the nursery aisles, stroking and smelling green leaves and flowers and every living thing. In the chill of winter, I drove my old pickup to Covington’s Nursery and Landscape in Rowlett and asked them to dump a Bobcat scoop of compost and shale into the back, which I shoveled into three raised beds I screwed together from planks of pine.

Covington’s was mobbed. Its free vegetable gardening class was standing-room only, and the cashier told me one man had purchased five truckloads of compost. I was one among many who wanted to coax seedlings to life, who anticipated ruby chard and Chioggia beets and a cornucopia of delectable, colorful, aromatic vegetables sprouting from unyielding clay soil. We had many reasons to garden in 2009. At first I needed to toil as an end unto itself: all that shoveling and rototilling and planting and watering was a release when thinking and feeling were too heavy a burden. My garden was more than sustenance; it was therapy, and hope.

At least, that’s how it started. A few months in, I realized that gardening in Texas is hard, especially when you’re trying to go organic, have no idea what you’re doing, and have an erratic schedule. I made it even more challenging by attempting to grow crops from seed. Never mind my inexperience, I wanted to see something tiny triumph over nature and my own clumsy nurturing, over drought and spring freezes, aphids and fungal disease.

On a warm day in mid-February, I picked a few jonquils from the bulbs sprouting near my mailbox and decided it was a good day to plant my cold weather crops. My eggplants and other tropical babies were suntanning under fluorescent lights in my garage when I pulled out my shoebox of hardier seeds. The nascent onions and leeks looked like chips of black obsidian, and the future microgreens were spiky asteroids. It was hard to believe that something so small held so much potential, but wilder things have happened in my neighborhood, I’m sure. I used rubberized gloves at first, until I found it easier and more satisfying to plunge my bare hands into the earth.

Whenever I spoke to Levi on the phone, I would ask about his health—Was he sleeping at night? Could he stay awake in the day? Had his cankles deflated?—and he would ask me about the garden. He laughed when I told him my husband sniffed the air after I fertilized with poultry litter and asked, “Why does it smell like poop?” As the months went by, I reported some early success with the microgreens (although I wasn’t sure which ones were actually small weeds), but by the time summer hit, I had to admit I was in trouble. My garden was supposed to thrive so that my stepfather would, too, despite the odds. But life doesn’t always cooperate with one’s metaphors.

Or maybe it does. Kill your darlings, the writing coaches say, because less is sometimes more. But I couldn’t bring myself to murder my extraneous tomato seedlings, so I harvested a grand total of five yellow cherry tomatoes from my overcrowded, nutrient-starved plants. Other lessons learned: Your greatest expectations don’t always bear fruit, but usually you have only yourself to blame. And hope is not a strategy when you’re battling powdery mildew attacking your cucurbits; neither is thinning the vines and a baking soda and soap spray if you catch it too late.

Many things in gardening, as in life, are beyond your control. Like the months of triple-digit heat when it grew tiresome to hand water the garden beds twice a day with the rain I collected from my roof in barrels. I dunked slug after slug into tuna tins to drown in Natural Light, the cheapest beer I could find (the slugs died happy at least). But I was outnumbered. Belatedly I remembered Levi’s advice about not planting too much at first. Listen to your parents. Another lesson learned.

I loved looking out my kitchen window at the riot of sugar snap peas wrapping around bamboo stakes, and wandering over in the morning among the blossoms and sweet delicate pods so tender I ate them raw. Aside from those wonderfully self-fertilizing, nitrogen-fixing bean crops—plus some deformed carrots; sunflowers whose heavy, seed-laden, yellow- and Chianti-colored heads nodded in the breeze; and a wild variety of arugula (which I can’t really take credit for, since it thrives unattended)—my garden was a bust. Whatever didn’t shrivel and die on the vine from some nefarious blight was chewed to pieces by caterpillars, or was bitter or stubbornly barren. Even my successes turned into failures: I let my beautiful okra plants go until the pods grew long and wooden. Eating them sautéed with tomatoes and basil was like sawdust ratatouille.

Against all expectations, however, my stepfather began to recover. By the fall, his heart was pumping at 40 percent capacity, and his cheeks had a healthy flush. Levi had a lot of suggestions about how I could improve my garden and vanquish the critters and diseases that attacked my tenderlings. Heavy October rains even made my pepper plants sprout enormous green chiles virtually overnight.

I’m still mad at Levi for not taking better care of his health, for continuing to kill his heart by smoking cigarettes. But I am more grateful than ever for the hard work he put in trying to get me to grow straight. No, I don’t have a green thumb—it is a wonder that I have any digits at all after Levi’s indulgent power tool privileges—but he and I have a few more seasons at least to get it right.

Gretel C. Kovach recently left Dallas to become a military affairs reporter for the San Diego Union-Tribune.