The Growth of a Gardener


words:Jessica Sowards images: Jeremiah Sowards

My mother has a green thumb. She can grow anything. When I was a kid, she would do things like buy me purple rose bushes as gifts and then grow them outside my bedroom window. When I made the mistake of stepping on a plant, she turned it into a lesson in root propagation. She sprouted avocado pits and the seeds from all sorts of things. She would take my siblings and me to markets and nurseries, exclaiming over unusual plant varieties. And when she took odd jobs planting flower beds for people, we would tag along, helping a little and complaining a lot about the Arkansas heat.


My granddaddy, he was a tomato man. With a penchant for beefsteaks, his kitchen counter was lined with fresh, red fruit all the summers of my childhood. He would pick me up and set me next to them, hand me a cherry tomato and take one for himself. Then we would pop them in our mouths and grin as juice and seeds burst through our teeth to the inside of our smiling cheeks.


You could say I am ingrained with an appreciation for the garden. Naturally, as I transitioned into adulthood, it seemed fitting to try out my own green thumb. I quickly learned that the ability to grow things was not hereditary. Many plants died at my negligent hands. Many. I did, however, learn to be a mother in that season. And all the small boys my hands were raising grew at a record pace.


Busy as I was with my sons, I couldn’t shake the desire to garden. So, I began to read and learn. I checked out books from the library, and as the age of Pinterest and the blog world grew, I utilized every resource I could. From apartments to rental houses, I grew what I could in containers, planting tomatoes in five-gallon buckets and sweet peas in flower beds.


My resources were limited. Not enough space, not enough money, not enough time, not enough help. The disappointments were probably the only abundant part of my early gardening experiences. I mostly resolved to support other local growers through farmers’ markets. Sometimes the desire to cultivate just got to be too much though, and I’d try again. And again. And again. I’d buckle on the seemingly relentless winter months and optimistically spend my birthday money on heirloom seeds from glossy, colored catalogs. Then when the spring came, I would be faced with the reality that I simply did not have the space and capacity to plant them all.


Then we found our house. And I thought, surely, my time has come. For many things, it had. My time to be a homeowner had come. My time to lay down my camera, close my photography business and focus on the farm of my dreams had come. My time to own chickens and goats, turkeys and ducks had surely come. But from the moment I first dug a shovel into the ground, I realized the perfect-foreclosure-on-an-Arkansas-ridge I was calling home sat directly on four acres of packed red clay. My time to be the gardener I’d always hoped to be would have to wait. It wasn’t going to be the simple matter of tilling a few rows.


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We do things big. I knew that when I finally got to have my garden, I wanted it to be one that supplied all our needs. I didn’t want it to just be big enough for fresh eating, but big enough for canning and sharing and selling a little at the market. In short, it was going to be a very costly endeavor to build the garden I wanted, considering we’d have to do it in raised beds by bringing in outside soil. So, I settled on using a few small raised beds in the front yard, and I waited.


Three years went by. Three years of being a farmer without a garden of my own. Then this spring, though it looked improbable that we’d be able to afford the garden, my husband Jeremiah told me to start the seeds in my greenhouse. I’ll be honest, I was afraid. I didn’t want to be disappointed. I didn’t want to put in hours and hours of work starting plants that I’d, again, have nowhere to plant. But I’m a sucker for hope. And though the risk of a great let-down lurked, I took the leap. Day after day, through March and April, I visited the greenhouse and nurtured hundreds of plants.


They grew. Lovely and lush. Sweet, purple peppers and hot, green ones. Black tomatoes and streaked eggplants, sunflower starts and tomatillos, all sorts of varieties carefully selected from my years-old seed collection, that beautiful, tangible souvenir of my garden dreaming. They grew and grew, and though it looked a little questionable for a moment, God came through with unexpected income, unforeseen jobs, unsolicited gifts in the name of “God told me to give this to you.” He does seem to like to do things in the last minute, doesn’t He? I think maybe He enjoys watching our faith grow like I enjoyed watching my little greenhouse plants. Maybe.


So this year, after over a decade of desire, after uncountable disappointments, and after an incredible amount of backbreaking work, I finally got my garden. Multiple forty-eight-foot raised beds run in parallel lines with arched trellises standing between them. Shorter beds line the outer edges, filled with carrots and radishes, kale and lettuces. My peppers sit in the bed closest to the compost pile, bejeweled with orange and yellow and deep green fruit. They glisten in the sun just like I knew they would. There are two long rows of my precious tomato plants, a brilliant array of heirloom varieties climbing cattle panels towards the sun. Herbs intermixed with eggplants, marigolds, and nasturtiums throughout. It is far lovelier than I ever imagined.


In the morning, I wake up and walk through it. In the evening, black soil swirls around my feet in the shower. I have never been so satisfied to be filthy. It’s harder than I thought it would be. I’ve gotten stronger. To be honest, had I been given this garden when I first asked for it, I would have never been able to withstand the work it requires. I guess that’s how it works though. Sometimes the waiting grows something in us. A resolve born of desperation. A dream cultivated in hope. And a determination to steward it well when finally given the shot.


Maybe it’s ingrained, or maybe it was hard-earned. It could simply be a mix of both. However it came about, I am undeniably a gardener. A grower, a green thumb like my mom and a tomato-lover like my granddaddy.


It was worth the wait.


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