Writing and gardening are closely intertwined in my life. I graduate, in July, from Fairfield University’s limited residency MFA program in writing. And I just laid claim to this patch of ground on the side of our house. For fifteen years it was in the shadow of a huge pine tree. When the pine tree came down, I was assured that the soil was so changed that nothing could grow. But when I came back from last summer’s ten day residency away from home, this vegetation greeted me. I have no idea what half those plants are. I love that they prove that something can grow in the space. But now it’s time to go for what I really want.
For Mother’s Day, I asked the young men in our house to please help me by preparing our vegetable garden (a small patch of ground roughly the size of a double bed) and this newly liberated area for planting. The vegetable garden has always been a little wild. My husband and I work at several jobs but none that pay much, so the “landscaping” of my garden depends heavily on discarded construction materials and ingenuity. The beans grow on trellises forged of tomato stakes and vinyl lattice trimmed from porches; the front border is made of cement blocks whose holes each contain a different herb.
This new space, however, will be something altogether different. I bought plastic fencing and fertilizer, mulch and rose bushes. The men and I pulled weeds, and they rotor-tilled the hardened ground, put up the border, spread the mulch and manure. On a day when the writing wasn’t going well, I took a shovel and dug four holes, one for each rose bush. I planted seeds I had chosen at the store, surprised by the combination I settled on. We watered the patch. We are waiting.
Before I applied for the MFA program, I was already a writer, had been paid to write, had edited an online magazine, had articles and even a podcast published, and had given speeches. Why, then, did I undertake an MFA in writing? For the same reason that it was important to weed, fence, and prepare the soil for the new flower bed. The vegetable garden feeds the body. The roses, sunflowers, cosmos flowers, petunias and lavender that I planted where that chaos had reigned will feed something else. But they couldn’t grow without the structure. And I applied for the program because I needed the same preparation.
I had taken a hiatus from active publishing and lost touch with my writer friends while my children were teenagers. When I came up for air, I needed peers, mentors, new technical skills, and inspiration. I found them all in this program, and now I am applying what I’ve learned about writing to my life, for which gardening supplies so many metaphors. When I am launched, in July, into the pool of gracious, generative, funny and talented alumni who have helped me so during the past four semesters, it will be time for me, also, to bear fruit.
I welcome the strange plants that appear in my mulch pile, and if they are hearty and desirable, I transfer them to the garden. But I have learned that if I do not plan and plant, weed and tend a garden, something will grow there, and it won’t be what I want. It might not even be something I recognize.
And so I embrace serendipity in my writing, at the seed rack, in my garden, and in my life. But serendipity works better if you’ve first rotor-tilled and mulched, set up a border and defined what it is you want to grow. There have been years when both my writing and my garden had to lie fallow. But now, it is exhilarating to plan and dig, to till and weed, to write and edit, to plant, and to submit.
I look forward to sharing what grows.
Photo: This is the before picture of my new attempted flower garden. Copyright: Ann McLellan Lardas