I’m sitting in the garden in the heat of the late summer sun and dreaming of all the beauty that could be here next spring—the tiny tendrils of hopeful sugar snap peas, the gentle dapple of spotted trout lettuces, an ocean of peppery nasturtium, riotous in color. But right now, everything is thirsty, including me. The few stalks of corn left unharassed by raccoons have maybe three ears between them. The color is good, but they never really filled out. One pepper plant still has all its fruit, now shriveled up. The eggplants all look healthy and happy, but no flowers and no fruit. Maybe they flowered and I didn’t see? Maybe the flowers got eaten? Maybe they’re supposed to bloom late? I have no idea.
This is my fourth year of keeping a garden in the backyard of our apartment building in Oakland, California, and I am still very much a beginner. There are four raised 4×4 beds and a small army of plastic pots fenced off for garden use. A gift from the landlord. Each of the beds is supposed to be dedicated to one of the apartments, but no one else has put them to use, so now they’re as much mine as anything rented can be. Most mornings I spend less than 15 minutes watering and pulling the odd weed or two, then spend the rest of my day chasing the peace of those short moments.
If the garden comes up in casual conversation and I list everything I’m working on growing—like tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, corn, lettuce, beans, and swiss chard—the listener will often laugh and say, “You must never have to go to the grocery store!” And I know then that they have never kept a vegetable garden. I have killed more plants than I can count and failed in ways too numerous to list. But at least the failures of a garden are never complete failures: What dies becomes compost and fuels the next venture. In a garden, even failure is an investment.
Last fall, my husband Win and I hosted a feast for Rosh Hashona, the Jewish New Year, and because our apartment is tiny, we did it in the backyard, lining up folding tables and mismatching tablecloths. I tried to make the garden look as presentable as I could, but aside from the tomatoes (bless them), it looked, well, sad. It’s new years, I thought, why doesn’t anything feel new? Even though I’ve practiced it my whole life (the Hebrew calendar and the academic one agree at least) it still seems odd to be thinking of a fresh start when everything is shutting down, but I’m starting to notice that fall is the best season for planning next year’s garden. It’s when I choose which plants to harvest and which to let go to seed so I can plant their progeny next year. Which varieties thrived in this climate and which struggled. Which surprised and delighted me so much that I want to devote more space to them. It may be invisible, but that time of planning, choosing, and setting new intentions is the fresh start, and it happens long before the seedlings of spring peep up their heads.
The incomparable delight of biting into a real tomato, the kind that drips the tang of sunlight directly onto your tongue, is the product of a year’s worth of work and attention. And that’s just the start. If you count the seed savers, that work goes back for millennia hand in hand with the whole human experience. You may think that you can start in spring with the shining sun and a patch of fertile ground, but everything is dependent on what came before. Are there nutrients in the soil? Where do your seeds and plants come from? How are the pollinators doing? Think ahead to what you want and plan all the way back to how you’ll get there. To achieve that bite of perfect liveliness, you often need to start with something dead or rotten. Compost, bone meal, ash.
It’s almost too easy to find life lessons in a garden: If you want flowers, you have to plant seeds. Pick the fruit when it’s ripe. Don’t water the weeds. No matter how insulated we may feel from the natural world, our survival as a species has always been dependent on our ability to negotiate with it. Of course there will always be elements that are out of our control; for all our work as a civilization to have clean water on tap for nourishing crops, we can’t force the sun to shine. But we can give pole beans a trellis to climb, avoid planting brassicaceae in the same bed two years in a row, choose a shady spot for cucumbers. We can start with what already exists and see what we can grow. And when we fail (not if, when) we can always try again.
Trying again is the whole point of the High Holy Days, the ten-day period between Rosh Hashona and Yom Kippur, which is alternately characterized as a festival of the new year and a somber time of reflection and repentance. It is a time to pay off debts, repair relationships, make amends. Over these days, with leaves falling and animals preparing for hibernation, we are asked to consider if the choices we made throughout the year are making us who we want to be. And in order to do this, we must first confront the places where we have failed, times when we “missed the mark,” like an archer would, aiming for a target and the arrow landing elsewhere. Or like a gardener who overcrowded the lettuce bed, or neglected their watering, or sowed a plant out of season. Next year, we pray, will bring more chances to get it right.
It is so much easier for me to confront the failures within my garden than it is in the world or in my own heart. If the cucumbers are bitter and tough, it is not because of their own meanness, it is because I didn’t give them enough water or I left them on the vine too long. If the lettuce bolts in the heat, I plan a shade structure for next year. If the birds eat the berries, I remember a local vineyard that festoons their plot with bright metallic ribbons to discourage aviary marauders. I get frustrated of course—I have no shortage of choice words for whatever creature nips all the flowers off the squash and doesn’t even eat them (seriously, wtf?!?) and I have certainly shed real tears over a flat of seed starts that fell out of the bathroom window to their doom—but in garden failures, there is a noticeable absence of guilt or shame because frankly, neither is of all that much use. You simply take the lesson and make a plan. You start over. I wish that I could meet the rest of my failures and shortcomings with such grace.
We won’t be hosting a feast this year, but I’ll still go to temple for the comfort of old words, which, like heirloom seeds, have been passed down from generation to generation. And every year I am reminded that the measure of personal growth is not repentance or regret, but reformation. When met with the same challenge, will I make a different choice? The measure of me is not how “good” I can be, but whether or not I can learn from my mistakes. The garden, at least, agrees with me on that. Spring is too late to start over if I wasn’t paying proper attention in fall. I have to take a moment first, with all the successes and failures right there in front of me to think about what I want next year.
It’s tempting to think you can change your life in an instant. That we’re all only one new year’s resolution or cute bullet journal spread away from living our best life or growing the juiciest tomato. But most change, I’ve found, is glacial until it sneaks up on you. It’s making a decision to invest in something and then making that decision over and over again. It’s days and days and days of watering and weeding, and feeding, and trellising, until suddenly, there it is, the bite you’ve been wanting to take all along.
Graphics by Coco Lashar.