Gardeners are in love with spring. I learned this at a young age. I can recall my mother making the rounds through the flower beds once the first warm days arrived, stopping at every plant, carefully twisting buds to check for new growth. She was out there daily. A reflection, I supposed, of a mix of impatience and admiration. A quick look through gardening blogs over the past few weeks reveals the same sentiment expressed in the multitude of pictures documenting opening buds and just emerged green shoots. I share these feelings about spring. Indeed, I often find myself checking the same plants twice a day for new growth. It’s something I’ve looked forward to for months. Spring, for a gardener, truly is wonderful. It also stresses me out. There’s a dark side to those daily rounds when you can’t tell if the dormant plants are just dormant or dead. Recently those dormant plants taught me a lesson I’ve learned before, but far away from and in places far more intimidating than my backyard: be humble, keep your eyes open for that edge where your human hand gives way to much greater forces.
I installed the first garden bed at this house two falls ago. I had a little spending money at the time and I bought 10 plants and nervously, because I’d never planted something I’d paid for myself, place them in the ground, watered them, and waited. After watching all my plants instantly go dormant for winter I was bursting with impatience and anticipation by spring. By late March plants were poking out of the ground and filling gardens up with green all over the neighborhood. My own garden, however, remained a brown expanse of mulch. I was filled with a small sense of despair. By April the pessimist in me took over. They were dead, I concluded. My money, my effort, my time, all wasted. Never mind that I had planted warm season, late sprouting plants on the shady side of my house.
I poured over them daily searching for any growth and always it was nothing. One day, frustration boiling over, I started inspecting the exposed crown of a little bluestem. After several minutes of poking, prodding, and what I thought was careful digging I was holding the entire crown in my hand. I had ripped it away from its roots. And lo and behold there on the underside of the crown was the smallest fleshy green bud. Oh the guilt I felt. I reburied the crown in the hole more out of a desire to deny my crime than from any belief it might regrow. My guilt kept me from inspecting that garden for several weeks. Everything I hadn’t dug up sprouted just fine, of course. It was small comfort to me. And then, two or three weeks behind the others here came shoots off my little bluestem. By the end of the summer it was two feet high.
For me it’s a combination of an obsession with being in control and an urge for instant gratification, a natural urge which gets easier and easier to satisfy and therefor harder to control in our society. After all the effort involved in preparing a new garden: researching, purchasing, and watering the plants, it’s hard to just wait and wait for them to do their thing. I hate waiting to see if a little bluestem has survived dry ground and freezing temperatures to leaf out in the mid-spring as its species has been doing for who knows how long. If the plant is growing? Great! If it’s dead? OK, I’ll get a new one. It’s when the entire secret of this plant’s life or death is still hidden below ground, not to reveal itself until some unfixable time, that I pull my hair out.
Last fall I was careful to plant some early spring bloomers which has certainly allayed that itch for affirmation and visible proof of progress but it’s still a battle I’m fighting. In March I noticed a wide shallow depression over where I had planted wild ginger last summer. Before rational thought could chime in my brain jumped to the likelihood that some animal dug up my new plant over the winter. Then I remembered my woodpile nearby and wondered if I’d dropped a log there, causing the depression and crushing the roots. Such silly notions. I quickly found myself belly-down excavating with an array of various sized sticks. Why? If I found a damaged plant what was I going to do? Surgery? I dug an inch: nothing. Two inches: nothing. I was ready to accept that what I’d envisioned would be the beginning of a giant ginger patch had already decomposed when I uncovered the tip of the greenest, fleshiest, most tightly curled leaf. Two inches below ground squeezed by brown soil it was a thing to behold. There was an intimacy to it that felt forbidden. I quickly replaced the loose dirt with the greatest care and then without thinking I constructed a fence of small sticks all around the buried leaf. It looked like medieval battlements. I don’t know what I was hoping to keep out. Not the wily rabbits, that’s for sure. It was like an unconsciously created barrier to my own destructive impatience. The ginger did emerge, with six leaves this year compared to the two last summer. It survived my intrusive inquiry, but the whorled rosinweed I similarly excavated did not. I found green roots there too, but a month after my digging just some moldy strands.
From more careful digging to a recognition of the big picture, I am improving. One of the last species to break ground in my yard this spring were the big bluestems I planted last fall. I remembered their general location and ten minutes of careful searching on a recent afternoon revealed the top of one dormant crown just above the surface. Of the second there was no sign. Sure enough small green shoots appeared out of the exposed crown a few days after I found it. Two weeks went by with no sign of the second. Each day required more discipline than the last to not go in search of that second plant. My conviction that I’d somehow killed it grew daily. I’d planted it too deep, in a bad spot, not watered it enough. I knew if I dug for it I wouldn’t save it, I just wanted to confirm my suspicions. There’s a sick satisfaction in correctly predicting personal failure.
But I waited. I’m starting to find you rarely find anything but regret when you go belowground in search of plants. And to my genuine surprise last week leaves identical to those coming out of the first big bluestem appeared from the ground an even 18 inches away. Most likely the soil was more clay-based and compacted on that particular spot. Possibly I did plant it too deep. It might even be that coming up two weeks later in the spring is that plant’s special genetic instructions. Something held it up. But here’s the thing. For an annual grass whose roots at maturity may reach seven or eight feet below ground showing up two weeks late in the spring just goes down as a little on the conservative side. It certainly wasn’t in a hurry to affirm my turf-digging and garden-planting prowess of the previous fall, which is really what I was waiting for it to do.
Great wild outdoor spaces have been the primary source of exhilaration, rejuvenation, perspective, and general happiness in my life, and obviously this is why I’m trying to let as much wild into my city backyard as I can. But it can be frustrating and saddening how short my backyard, despite all my work, comes up when compared to real wilderness. The humbling experience of hanging around uselessly while waiting for a second-year big bluestem to work its way through however many inches of clay soil doesn’t hit you quite the way a choppy ocean, a looming mountain, or a stiff headwind on the middle of a Boundary Waters lake does. But how different are these things at heart? In the outdoors we are surrounded by powers greater than us. Water, weather, our ancestral predators, even something as simple as physical distance over uneven terrain can in the right circumstances enact tremendous destruction upon our small physical beings. They’re the kind of powers that, as a simple body without shelter or certain tools we have limited ability to fight against. Among them you must find the paths of least resistance, the paths open to you, and call being and moving amongst something greater than yourself victory. One of the great promises and rewards of wilderness is that if you go as you are these powers run through and wash over you and it’s the most cleansing thing in the world.
It doesn’t just take humility to learn from and be restored by a sprouting grass, it also takes the perceptiveness to recognize where your human limits brush up against something much greater and more mysterious. That can take a lot of time. It took me several years of digging up tiny plants trying to answer questions before they were ready to be answered. And one day soon I’ll probably forget the lesson and have to learn it all over again. Blades of grass are not mountains, roaring rapids, or the unending sky over a rolling prairie, but they are sort of a distillation of those things. The same power runs through all of them. The second big bluestem is still two inches shorter than the first, but I can report it’s coming along just fine.