December 1, 2020

Damaris Zehner: Why I Garden

New Garden

Why I Garden
Damaris Zehner

What force is it that
every year
pushes upward from the pod,
believing in foliage, flower, and fruit,
believing that this year
perfection will be reached?

I’m not stupid.
I can remember that every August
my vegetables sprawl on the ground, faint
with fecundity and offended
by the mob that has invaded the garden.
Weeds park their jalopies on the beds
and spread out picnics,
shout to neighbors, litter and let
their kids run wild, no matter how I chase them
with fork and hoe.

But every April the bare brown earth
tempts me to a dream of perfection.  This year
tomatoes will be ballroom dancers embracing their supports,
instead of wrestlers pinning strangled,
mangled cages to the mat of mulch beneath.
Onions, groomed and dignified, will march
up their rows toward the continent zucchinis, who produce
no vulgar excess to bundle and abandon at night
on neighbors’ doorsteps.
All is order, beauty; I can sit here and rest.

I remember August, but
if in April I believed my memories,
I would never plant again.
This dream of perfection sprouting every year
from the hard shell of disappointments,
this power pushing from the seed,
is the undying force of life itself:
this is hope.


  1. Christiane says

    “. . . this power pushing from the seed,
    is the undying force of life itself:
    this is hope.”

    I loved this poem, DAMARIS. Thank you for sharing with us.

    It awakened memories of my beloved Aunt Yvonne, pictured in her garden, here:

    she saved seeds from her tallest salvia plants every year, and planted them anew the next spring . . . this went on for many years, until her salvia plants grew to over her head as high as seven feet tall, and she became famous for her very own strain of ‘salvia splendens’ which now bears the name of ‘Yvonne’s Salvia’ . . .

    Aunt Yvonnes dear huband, my uncle Sam, put his little hand-made painted bird houses up on poles in their garden
    . . . there are words to express the beauty that was my Aunt’s garden . . . my memere (grandmother) once said of her daughter (Aunt Yvonne) this: ‘so much love, so much love’ . . . maybe those words can best decribe the gardener and her garden

  2. Thank you for the story and the picture, Christiane. Those are amazing salvias — love made visible, obviously.

  3. Beautiful, Damaris! Every winter I think maybe I won’t do a vegetable garden…so much work with not that much to show for it, but every spring, there I am, starting seeds, buying plants, prepping the garden, planting. Yes, it is HOPE!

  4. That’s a keeper. My wife laughed laughed and chuckled as I read it to her. Of course the last line wraps it beautifully. Isn’t that so much our lives.

  5. My garden gave me hope after a long cold winter. I could go there to think in the spring and summer and no one accused me of wasting time ( I was weeding after all)

    My children learned to love vegetables since we planted and grew them together, harvested and cooked them together.

    The neighbors loved my garden since it was where all their leaves went to be burned (in the good old days). It kept the clay soil loose and sterilized the soil so I could plant the same crops in the same spots year after year. I miss that garden but hold the memories close.

  6. David Cornwell says

    When the first seed catalogs arrived in our mailbox, snow was at a record depth here. I had to dig out around the mailbox, so the rural carrier could get up to it. But the bright cover of the catalog, showing on it bright veggies meant that something else would eventually come.

    Thanks for the poem. I love it.

    And Easter is coming also.

  7. CatelynStark says

    I didn’t plant a garden last year because I had some surgery during the summer, plus it was time for the ground to have a sabbatical. So now I’m chomping at the bit to get out and play in the dirt this year. Love gardening, love canning and freezing — the whole nine yards.

    For some people, the heavens declare the glory of God — for me it’s a seed. The thought that a tiny bit of matter no bigger than one of the letters on this blog can produce a plant six feet high or taller, with multiple copies of itself, is just mind-boggling to me. I hope gardening is one of the activities we’ll have in heaven.

    • CatelynStark, the seed analogy was noticed by (or revealed to) Julian of Norwich as well. She compared all creation to a hazelnut, having three properties: The first, that God made it; the second, that he loveth it; and the third, that he keepeth it.

      I got the following translation from wikipedia. The original Middle English is there too.

      And in this he showed me a little thing, the quantity of a hazelnut, lying in the palm of my hand, it seemed, and it was as round as any ball. I looked thereupon with the eye of my understanding, and I thought, ‘What may this be?’ And it was answered generally thus: ‘It is all that is made.’ I wondered how it could last, for I thought it might suddenly fall to nothing for little cause. And I was answered in my understanding: ‘It lasts and ever shall, for God loves it; and so everything has its beginning by the love of God.’ In this little thing I saw three properties; the first is that God made it; the second is that God loves it; and the third is that God keeps it.

  8. …and then again, there is the Farmers’ Market. 🙂

    I always enjoy your work here Damaris, and particularly today’s when we happen to be facing 8″ of snow tonight.

  9. Danielle says

    I love this!

    “This year
    tomatoes will be ballroom dancers embracing their supports,
    instead of wrestlers pinning strangled,
    mangled cages to the mat of mulch beneath.”

    This made me laugh. You see, I am no longer allowed to grow tomatoes.

    They look terrible by mid-July, husband says.

    Ah, don’t worry, I picked different varieties this year, I say.

    Do you suppose I can sell him on the new grafted plants?

    • Danielle, we built tomato cages last year out of three lengths of PVC as the uprights and three lengths of thinner electrical conduit as the cross pieces. They were a pain to build, but my tomatoes finally stood up all season, and the cages will last for years.

  10. Thank you for this post, Damaris; it lifted up my spirits.

    We moved into our current home just over three years ago. I keep meaning to do something with our back yard but each spring my busy schedule trumps my desire to start a garden. Your post rekindled a desire in me to use our backyard for something other than the world’s largest latrine (the dog’s, that is). It will have to be two or three raised beds filled with store-bought soil, though, as in this high desert part of New Mexico the soil is sandy and only good for tumble weeds, buffalo grass, sage brush, and a juniper here & there.

  11. Damaris, you mentioned zucchinis “to bundle and abandon at night on neighbors’ doorsteps.”

    Around here August is the month with the highest crime rate. If you don’t lock your car you’ll come back and find it stuffed with zucchinis.

  12. What a wonderful picture of your green-thumb aunt and her husband and her mighty salvias!

    I’m with you all the way on gardens, Damaris! They give you such hope in the spring — never mind about late summer. Long ago I wrote a very secular poem about the wonderful seed catalogs (but without your spiritual insight). I don’t reall the first part of it, but the last two verses were:

    But other visions I espy
    of what it looked like last July,
    When weeds grew high and flowers were humbled
    As my enthusiasm stubled.

    But wait! Here’s one of which they swear,
    ‘This plant is hardy; needs no care.
    No need to water, prune, or weed.’
    Whatever it grows, I want that seed!

  13. Robert F says

    “April is the cruellest month, breeding
    Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
    Memory and desire, stirring
    Dull roots with spring rain….”

    T.S. Eliot, The Wasteland

  14. Robert F says

    On the wet sidewalk
    after a soft April rain
    a slug perseveres.

  15. Dana Ames says

    Thanks for publishing your poem here, Damaris.

    My favorite part is about the weeds and their unruly children… oh yes…

    I used to have a big garden, when my kids were little. I would like to plant again, but not until I have some waist-high raised beds; can’t kneel down anymore. In the meantime, I nurse along a peach tree, a lilac, some bulbs, and some annuals in a couple of hanging planters. Husband cares for the roses. My mother-in-law has the greenest thumb I know: she has grown apple trees from seeds. My younger daughter seems to have inherited this green gene 🙂

    Don’t forget to plant marigolds around your tomato plants – 2-4 marigolds for each tomato, depending on how you arrange the tomatoes. You won’t get any tomato worms, and most other bugs will leave them alone, too.


  16. Christiane says

    For DAMARIS, whose memorable poem reminds us that a garden is ever about hope. 🙂
    I found a review of a portion of Rachel Remen’s lovely book: ‘My Grandfather’s Blessings’. ( I do not have the name of the author of the review, but here it is:

    “It opens with the story of how Rachel’s grandfather would always bring her a present when he visited. But he never
    brought the usual dolls or stuffed animals that other children received from their grandparents.
    His gifts were always a bit different, one in particular.
    It consisted of a small paper cup filled with dirt.
    At the time, four-year old Rachel was not allowed to play with dirt, mostly, I think because she grew
    up in NYC, where what little dirt there is can be dangerous.
    Understandably, young Rachel was disappointed by this gift of a cup filled with dirt that was of no
    use to her.
    Her grandfather must have seen the disappointment in her eyes.
    “If you promise to put some water in the cup every day, something may happen,” he said by way of
    trying to pique his granddaughter’s curiosity and assuage her disappointment.
    It worked. Rachel’s curiosity was indeed piqued and she did as her grandfather suggested. She
    watered the dirt in the cup every day. For maybe three days, which was an eternity in her four-year
    old mind.
    Then the next day she forgot to water the cup until she was in bed later that night. Dutifully she got
    up and watered it again, but her enthusiasm for this project was clearly drying up, as it were.
    My guess is she was on the cusp of giving up altogether when something wondrous happened. The
    next morning when Rachel got out of bed she noticed that two little green leaves had spouted up
    out of the dirt.
    “I was completely astonished,” she confessed. When her grandfather next stopped by for a visit,
    she ran to him and quickly explained what had happened, expecting him to be astonished, too.

    Except of course he wasn’t. He explained to her that the miracles of life are everywhere, hidden in
    the most ordinary and unlikely places.
    “And all it needs is water, Grandpa?” she asked, thinking that that’s all it took to make the magic happen.
    “No, [little one]” he replied.
    “All it needs is your faithfulness.” “

  17. This. I so relate.

  18. Daniel Jepsen says

    Damaris, I LOVE this. So beautiful and profound. Thanks for sharing it!

  19. All the poems and stories you share here make me happy. There’s something that binds gardeners together. Ted, an especial thanks for the Julian quotation — that always gives me goosebumps.