Life lessons from gardening

By Wesley Harris    

Granddaddy and Grandma lived in what I viewed as a magical place. The lack of running water, indoor plumbing, and electricity did not faze me at all. The magic started on the front porch where my grandparents spent most of their time. You could sit on the porch and observe the flurry of activity in the yard. Bees and wasps and dragonflies and all sorts of nameless insects buzzed and hummed around a huge assortment of flowers planted every which way. Red chickens and white chickens and yellow chickens and speckled chickens ran loose in never-ending pursuit of the insects.

At my age, the yard supplied a strange and scary but enticing environment. Tall flowers and shrubs and flitting bugs, birds, and chickens produced a confusion of color and movement. For real adventure, I left the porch to explore, but I did so tentatively, a little afraid an insect would sting me amid the wild jungle of buzzing bugs and other curious noisemakers. 

My preferred exploit was through the pasture and over a hill to the garden with my dad. “Wanna go bust a melon?” Dad would say and off to the garden we would go. It was just over a hill from the house, through a little cow pasture. Once you topped the hill, the garden went down to trees hiding a creek. 

My grandparents survived on the garden’s harvest. Grandma filled rows of closet shelves with canned beans, cucumbers, peppers, and corn. With no car and little money, they never ran to the store like we do today. 

Rows of corn stretched tall toward the sky in Granddaddy’s garden. Daddy said some of it was sweet corn for eating and some was called field corn. Nell the horse and the cows and the chickens devoured field corn. 

Watermelons covered much of the garden with their long trailing vines. Dad and I grew watermelons in a little garden at home, but they never turned out as good as Granddaddy’s. Dad said the soil was different and our garden was too shady. Eating a watermelon was easy but messy at Granddaddy’s. We ate in the garden. Dad would thump melon after melon with his finger until he found the right one. He could tell by the sound of the thump which one would be best. I thumped them too, but I could not tell one from another. 

Sometimes I found jagged holes in the watermelons, right down to the middle, with red juice oozing out. Dad said crows loved to eat melon. After Dad had found the best watermelon, he snapped it off the vine, lifted it off the ground, and dropped it to break it open. No spoons, just use your hands to scoop out the juicy red stuff. The part right in the middle called the heart was the best. If we ate all the middle part and wanted some more, we broke open another one because there were enough watermelons, and the heart is the best. When we finished, we left the remainder on the ground, hoping the lazy crows would eat the leftovers and not ruin another one.

When we moved out in the country ourselves, we started our own garden. Dad labored hard in an outdoor job most of his working days, but he found rest in the garden. As I got older, the garden drew me, and I planted my own preferences in vegetables. In between bouts of city living, I have kept my own garden. The experiences in the gardens of my granddaddy and father as well as my own have taught me some life lessons:

  • Life is fragile. A couple of scorching Louisiana summer days will wilt the heartiest of plants. When the coolness of the night brings a little moisture to recharge the plant’s circulatory system, it can recover, at least temporarily. We must all recharge our batteries, whether spiritually, emotionally, or physically. If we do not, our wilted spirits, emotions, and physical abilities will eventually be overcome.
  • New situations are hard but survivable. Transplanting is extremely stressful to plants. But with timely nourishment and water and protection from the elements, plants can recover and establish themselves in the new environment.
  • Some want something for nothing. Insects, weeds, raccoons, and other pests love to exploit our hard work in the garden. The Chinese called 2021 the Year of the Ox. I called it the Year of the Bug. Consecutive mild winters have boosted the insect population. While I don’t have anything against bugs as a general rule, I despise their attempts to sneak into my house after devouring my garden. Raccoons are even worse for their sheer gluttony. Weeds seem to sprout up overnight in the freshly turned soil of my garden as if I had planted and fertilized them. In life, people will take advantage of us. We must decide how we will manage those situations. 
  • Giving provides rewards. To harvest life sustaining food with our own hands is satisfying but providing it to others brings a greater compensation for our heartfelt labors.
  • Even failure has its rewards. It is not always about the result but the journey. The most fruitless garden affords a place of solitude, time for meditation, and steady exercise. Digging in the dirt is enough. 
  • The heart is the best. The finest part of any fruit or vegetable seems to be deep inside. The surface may be rough and tasteless but inside you find the best. People are the same. Don’t judge by the outside but what’s in the heart.

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