Cultivating asparagus

I have been putting in an asparagus bed this Spring – an interesting process for a girl with some serious commitment issues. Growing asparagus takes a lot of preparation and care and needs to be left alone for two years before it is harvested. And not only does it take forever  before you can eat it, it hogs a whole lot of energy and valuable space. In order to make room for it, 2 large sheds got taken down, a ton of gravel was moved and a hundred wheelbarrows full of dirt were hauled across the yard to fill the 4’x11’x14” bed that will house a cluster of weedy looking roots. Counting a full year of planning and preparation, by the time I have a piece of roasted asparagus on my plate, nicely seasoned with olive oil, garlic and a little lemon pepper, I will have labored over it for three years without it even reaching its peak production for  several more. I’m preparing to commit to this vegetable longer than most things in my life.

My kids and I moved nearly 20 times in the nineteen years we lived together. We relocated for good reasons, and for bad….we have moved all of our stuff into storage units while we lived out of boxes, and unpacked full of hope time and time again. Each time I carefully packed the collection of bird nests my daughter said I kept because I was looking for my own place to nest. Each new home was like a new garden…an empty space waiting to be filled, full of promise that if I worked hard enough, it would be bountiful. In each I tended a garden of some sort, full of hope that the seeds I planted would unleash abundance on us.

Gardening is where the dreamer in me shines – where I can jump in head fist and watch the magic happen. It is a small world I get to be god of. I spent many winters reading garden catalogs, making plans and buying far more seeds than I ever really needed. Always hoping that this would be the one I got to keep, I threw my whole heart in with wild abandon. I dug every new garden myself, asking for and receiving no help…moving turf, hauling rocks and constructing beds.The problem was I spent little time distilling what I REALLY wanted, had the time and energy for  and whether the conditions were really right. It was one big all-or-nothing-try-everything-in-hope-that-something-works. Regardless of the suitability of the land to what I wanted, I attempted to build my dreams in an energetic frenzy of dirt moving and shit hauling.

Ironically (or maybe not) no matter how many times I planned, dug and sweated, or even how long I was able to tend that particular garden, I never really harvested what I planted. I confess – shamefully – I was a lifetime gardener who didn’t enjoy the fruits of her labors. Sure, I would nibble out of it and give stuff away to neighbors and friends, but as for harvesting and making the most of every zucchini, bean or lettuce leaf – well, most of it rotted. For all the time, energy, and work I put in, I never really got to be nourished by it. I dove in headfirst with enthusiasm and hope but was blinded by the enormity of possibility. I would lose focus, forget to water, get distracted and soon  it was too late. The window of opportunity was gone.

In my garden I had a big idea of what I wanted – but it was like comparing a relationship to a grocery store romance novel — little connection with reality or possibility. Even though I dreamed big and worked hard on it, it wasn’t necessarily what I wanted or capable of maintaining and I had to give up mid-stream. And all these years of running to and from many things – and myself  – meant that I had never learned how to cultivate my dreams. My lack of abundance in other areas of life left me seeking, yet unable to harvest, my dream anything much less garden. A lack of clarity about what I wanted had me planting far more seeds that I was interested in or able to take advantage of. I was a spectacularly hard worker but not so good at doing all that would have resulted in a successful harvest. When the garden had finally reached its maximum fertility and was ready to give back, I let the branches break for the weight of the fruit, and the stalks fell over top-heavy.  It was survival of the fittest…the toughest plants survived the attention/neglect then got packed up and moved on with me. The rest was left unapologetically in the compost heap.

This post was about gardening right?

To an outsider gardening looks like you can just plant, sit around watching it grow, pull a few weeds and then feast. It takes a great deal more planning and preparation in order to be successful. Choices about time and place, long term goals and quality of the available resources are critical to being able to continue productivity for the long term. The daily tending is critical to keeping it healthy.  And like so much of life, it is the small things you do that result in abundance. Sometimes in the in-between, when you are just tending to the dream, it is easy forget your intention and get distracted. Gardening and life are a constant re-commitment to the process –even when it looks like nothing is happening. We have to trust in the unseen, to believe that our care matters. Sometimes we have to re-evaluate mid-stream, make different decisions about our resources or take a break to rest the soil. We have to plan ahead to prevent disaster and anticipate our successes so that we are ready to receive.

Cancer changed much in my life, right down to the fact that my “garden” became 2 pots on the back porch and some real evaluation about what I wanted in life. Now that my kids had moved out, I only had my needs to consider and a clean slate. I had a gnawing sense of immediacy and my world had become a daily investigation of what was important to me in the moment. Gone was my endless energy for big, vague dreams and instead I asked myself regularly, “is this making me happy?” and “what do I really want?”.I was often surprised by the answers.

Some of that big dream I thought I wanted didn’t really apply to me. The job I thought was so important was not. And neither was questing after the status of being important. I wanted small, not large. What was actually valuable to me in my relationships was not necessarily what I had thought. I was really satisfied with the “happy hour menu” instead of the whole big sha-bang.  Most importantly, I began to realize I was worth the effort to plan for and have what I wanted then to enjoy whatever it was.

My boyfriend Neil began looking for his first house to buy while I lay in bed recovering from surgery. As he was working through finding what he really wanted I encouraged him to make a “treasure map” of what was most important and to firmly believe that it would lead him to the right home. I taught him the very work I was trying to embody myself and hoped that teaching would help the learning sink in. While he manifested his way to a new home, I mapped my way into a new life, questioning the importance of each step to make sure I was not throwing it all to the wind as I so often had.

And sure enough the house appeared – in not quite what was be anyone’s dream location, but certainly full of possibility and possessing every strength Neil considered important – down to room for the roses he hoped to grow. Though it was Neil’s home, I had made my own treasure map of what I hoped for in this next move: space to build love, the strengthening my health, staying close to my parents, time to self-reflect  wrapped in the sweet smell flowers and of course, a garden. We got the got the keys the night before my last radiation treatment. Come spring, we counted 30 rose bushes (!) and those mysterious tree-like plants all over the yard turned out to be a dozen different lilacs. The previous owner was a gardener and as it warmed up and my energy began to return, I filled her garden beds with vegetables and munched on the raspberries she had tended so carefully.  As I settled my nest collection into its new home, I couldn’t help but wonder if finally I had learned enough to have found my own nest location too.

That first summer I carefully tended a garden that had been there for many years with the tools that the little old lady had left for me to use. Fenced in and protected, there were many plants that were long established and an abundance of surprises. I grew only what I knew we could eat and what I had energy for, I shared the excesses of raspberries and beans but kept enough for me to make jam and put things away in the freezer for deep-winter treats. I planted flowers that I cut every week and tended the dozens of rose bushes making sure that I always brought the beauty indoors to enjoy all of the time.

Cautiously I dug into the dirt, my home and my relationships. I re-established connections with friends I hadn’t seen in years because I had felt so toxic. Neil and I remodeled the whole house  making it ours, sorting out the nuances of what we each wanted. We learned how to work together amidst the piles of rubble and dust left from tearing down the old in so many ways.  We called our friends and loved ones for help with the hard things and to join us in celebrating our successes.  Tentatively I extended little tendrils of roots and closed the exit doors I usually left open for me to escape. Where I used to plan far ahead and close myself off, now our house and garden is full of the laughter of family and friends who often stop by unannounced. Many quite evenings have passed with a glass of wine in hand watching our chickens root around in the dirt. And I have fully harvested two years worth of gardens, with a freezer full to prove it.

When I told my kids I was planning to plant asparagus they said “Whoa Mom, that is BIG!” And it is. This wasn’t something I could dig up and take with me in a pot or pack into a box.  Planting asparagus is a statement that I plan to be around to stick around to see it grow, to do the cautious work of preparing its home, to take care of it and enjoy it thoroughly when it ended up on my plate.

There is something way bigger at work here in this garden. I have stopped envisioning my life in big fairy tale format that had little connection to my sanity and dreams. I spend more time asking if this is my desire or someone else’s and try to act on that. When I focus on what I want, I stop running away from abundance and instead become more able to receive the fruits of my labor.  I allowed for the wisdom, tools and helping hands of the people around me, past and present, to help me tackle challenges instead of hiding, ashamed of my struggles and limited knowledge. As I become more comfortable with what I want and who I am without the extra distractions, I am able to set down roots. All gardeners know that the more nourished the roots the deeper they grow and the healthier the plant. And I feel my roots growing strong and deep and reaching outwards to anchor myself to this place.

The Jersey King asparagus that will arrive any day now has no idea how incredibly important it is. When I finally get to that dinner, I will have worked the same garden for 4 years – longer than I have ever stayed put in one place. It will also mean that I have allowed love in my life, and consistently maintained close friendships that nurture me, for the longest time ever.  Its survival means that I will have successfully cultivated hope and acted on my dreams in many aspects of my life for longer than I have ever. And most importantly, I stuck through the rain and dirt, sunshine and beautiful days to actually enjoy the effort I have put in. A lot rides on something that could die regardless of my attention. This asparagus – not even planted yet – represents far more than a tasty side dish. It represents the most important commitment I have ever made – the one to constantly and lovingly tend my own inner garden.

One thought on “Cultivating asparagus

  1. I envision late afternoon, evening garden parties in the back yard with lights strung about and all us marveling over your hard work, effort, and the beauty that surrounds us.

    Once again a post that has caused me go deep into reflection.


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