Joanna Theiss: Gardening for Mothers

On the second Sunday in May, plant tomato seedlings. Mother’s Day tomatoes will be sweet, complacent. Perfect for salads.

Scatter basil and cilantro in July, when the earth is slick and lax, the groundwater warm enough to soften macaroni. When infant mosquitos burst from jelly eggs. This phenomenon once sickened you and now, you welcome it, feeling a sense of solidarity with all birthing kind, despite the sting.

A picture-perfect, pastel spring requires forethought. Although planting times vary depending on hardiness, around here, we bury tulip bulbs in mid-September. Because the ground must be rootless, untroubled, dig out your herbs, which have grown woody and too sure of themselves.

No later than Halloween, quietly sow your disappointments an inch deep and three inches apart in disciplined, orderly rows. Although your disappointments may still be small, slip only one in each pointer-finger divot to let them fester in isolation. Cover with a thin spreading of soil.

Dread winters well. Use a sturdy spade to dagger out holes and throw in handfuls. Don’t fret over clumps; like fistulas, the roots of dread connect to one another and form networks below the chilling surface, creeping into the gardens of nearby mothers, on whose mature dread yours will graft and fuse. Some swear by planting under the waning moon, but that’s an old wives’ tale. So long as your furrows are deep, dread will take.

Winter in the garden need not be fallow. Dig, bury, scrape and thrust, break your nails on the hardened ground, cast aside leaf mold and the broken sticks you were too ashamed to clear off when you were supposed to. Pick at the chipped earth until cavities emerge. Toss in the saplings of your resentment, which stubbornly grew during four o’clock sunsets and crow-loving, clouded-over noons, when the baby wouldn’t nap, when the pipe burst. As a barren burying place, a frozen winter garden is preferable to your marriage.

By spring, it is no longer possible to count all the ways that you have failed as a mother, a spouse, a daughter, but a garden in May offers the chance to forget. Watch your crawling child bask in the carefree joyous petals of pink, yellow, and white tulips, in the first blooms of wisteria and showy phlox, and pray that chlorophyll will flush out the hours he spent in front of a screen. Lead your family amongst the fresh tomato seedlings smelling of chalk and acid and erase the whiffs of your wild need, blighted ambition, invasive doubts.

Spring is the manifestation of the gardener’s skill: to plan, prepare, organize. To repress, to obscure unpleasant radicles under a sightly bouquet. And while your first growing season may be difficult, as the years pass, laboring in the garden will become second nature.

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