by Susannah Felts
Friday is my 4-year-old daughter Thalia’s favorite time of the week, hands-down. It’s what I think of as her “nature camp” day, which she usually spends at my parents’ farm some 20 minutes from our home in Nashville, Tennessee. There, she sows seeds, waters, picks flowers and berries, feeds chickens, gathers eggs, hobnobs with goats, and sifts potting mix through her little fingers. And gets very, very dirty. She’s a lucky kid.
Ours is a family of plant lovers and avid gardeners, with “avid” being a sort of gross understatement. My folks have gifted me with a deep passion and respect for the magic and cyclical pleasures of nature—not to mention the gallons of blueberries, tomatoes, squash, herbs, and more that we haul home from regular visits to their place every spring and summer.
I’d like to tell you that I inherited that kind of double-strength green thumb, but so far, I’m pretty sure more plants have perished than thrived under my care. Still, I keep trying, and my enthusiasm for growing things only, well, grows. Each spring I observe the progress of my mom’s vegetable garden, its bounty so much more robust than that of my own garden, and she feeds me advice (along with cuttings, tools, and truckloads of my dad’s homemade compost). In the past, though, I haven’t always been the best at following it.
“Pinch ‘em back!” Mom says, invoking one of the first tips she herself heard from a seasoned gardener decades ago. That is, don’t ever be afraid to cut, or prune, your plants. The more you do, the more they’ll happily send out new growth.
She’s cautioned me to stay on top of weeding, to get those interlopers out of the ground when they’re still tiny, since they only become harder to deal with down the road. She’s told me to think about a plant’s water needs and how I might meet them before I commit to growing it. After all, it’s seriously hot here in the summertime – and really, who wants to drag around a hose when it’s 95 degrees and 100 percent humidity outside? (Not I.)
And last year, she told me how it’s helpful to snip the “suckers”– those little shoots that form in the crooks between the plant’s branches and stalk — off tomato plants so more energy will go to forming the fruit.
More than any other piece of advice, though, Mom has hammered home that gardening is trial and error, and that skill comes from the accumulation of years and years of patient experimentation and on-the-job training.
Well this year, I’m vowing to finally embrace Mom’s words of wisdom and (forgive the pun) turn over a new leaf in my vegetable garden. I will be more daring when wielding my pruning scissors. I will install an easier-to-access hose (and maybe even a drip-line) that will keep my plants from getting so parched. I will begin monitoring for both weeds and “suckers” from the start, pulling and snipping at first sighting. And above all, I will allow myself more trial – and more error.
Happily, I now have an eager partner in Thalia—who appears to be a natural-born little gardener in the making. Any doubts I had about that vanished just this afternoon, as she smashed a trowel against the mud pile she’d made with her watering can. “I love gardening, Mama!” she said.
Me too, Thalia. Me too.