words: Jessica Sowards
images: Jeremiah Sowards
When I was a little girl, I dreamed of a secret garden. I loved the classic children’s novel by the same name. I remember being altogether wooed by Frances Hodgson Burnett’s tale of a garden where sickly and cast aside children came to life again, where they learned wonder and friendship and found wholeness.
I dreamed of one day having a garden just like it. It would have towering, ivy-covered rock walls and iron scrollwork in the locked gates. Roses would mound in heaps all about, herbs would grow wild, and willow trees would dance, admiring their own reflection in still, lily-pad-adorned ponds. There would be rope swings in my garden and so many flowers growing wild that you would have to have a mind like an encyclopedia to know them all by name. And I would. I would know them all like old friends.
I am no longer a little girl. I am now old enough to have a child called “teenager,” and though I am still taken aback by it from time to time, I am thoroughly an adult. I am also a gardener. It took me a while to say that with confidence. When I lived in town and grew tomatoes in pots on the patio, I did not call myself a gardener. When I worked in garden beds and learned to separate my crowded hostas, I thought about wearing the title, but hesitated.
When I devoured books about growing flowers, herbs and vegetables, becoming familiar with the offerings of the gardening section at the local library, I became bold enough to say, “I enjoy gardening.” I never really called myself a gardener though. I felt like a little girl standing at the wrought iron gate of some forbidden land, one which I was far too unqualified to enter and to belong.
The first year I planted a garden you could classify as large, I traveled to visit a friend who was preaching in another city. He referenced me in his sermon, an off-hand mention, nothing at all really except he said, “Jessica is here. She is a gardener…”
She is a gardener. And just like that, I graduated. A little girl in my mind stood with a cap and gown and received her green thumb award like it was a ribbon-tied diploma.
The fenced space of my garden these days is more than 10,000 square feet. Three times the size of my house. My goals have changed a bit since I was a girl. With six kids to feed and a head full of knowledge about the importance of real food, I laid my heart on heirloom vegetables as the star of my space. But I didn’t want it to be just functional. I wanted more; I wanted to grow beauty. I wanted a garden that moved me, that filled that aching place in my heart that craved a living sanctuary.
When my family and I started the project of building our garden nearly three years ago, I unrolled a large sheath of white paper on the kitchen table and sketched the thing to scale. It would cost more than we had and be more than I could handle on my own, but I have never been reserved in dreaming. It took two years to build all the raised beds. And though the cosmetic features, like gravel walkways and a sitting gazebo in the middle, are still not complete, it doesn’t take imagination anymore to be undone by the beauty of the thing.
We spray painted an old metal screen door hot pink and hung it for the gate. It’s not quite the towering wrought iron thing of my childhood dreams, but it does have a certain whimsy to it. There are no looming walls around my garden. Just a simple four-foot farm fence, barely enough to keep the dogs out. The beds are planted diversely. Someone might even observe it as being hodgepodge if they hadn’t spent hours reading about companion planting. Different vegetables and herbs and flowers are mixed, filling out garden beds with unlikely marriages, one repelling the pests that plague the other, one returning to the soil nutrients the other needs to thrive.
Arched trellises stretch overhead between the rows. On them, lush foliage creates a tunnel, one where the leaves reach longingly up to the sun, and long green bean pods or melons or cucumbers hang down. To the right of the raised beds, there are ten rows in the ground completely covered by vines. Those rows were an orderly company back in May when we planted them. They were tilled and mulched and were the picture of tidiness. Then we dropped seeds for rambling things into them. Melons and vining squash, and those seeds grew with a wildness and covered the rows as they brought forth their fruit. And throughout the garden, sunflowers sway with their faces turning to the sun as it moves across the sky. A whole row of them stands at the end of the melon patch. And single stems of mammoth flowers grow proudly in the corners of the raised beds, one here and one there, planted on a whim one spring morning.
Before the days came when my harvest basket was overflowing, I shot a video of my garden. It was early June, and honestly, I didn’t think anyone would watch it because it was nearly an hour long. It was simply a walk through the garden sharing about the different plants and my experiences growing them. When I made the video, I was thinking of my winter self, and how I will so desperately long for a walk under bean covered tunnels once January comes and the garden is bare. I shot the video for myself and uploaded it to YouTube for anyone else who may have wanted to see.
Within a day, three thousand people watched it. And resounding pleas for more videos came in droves. So I began weekly garden tours, teaching more in-depth about how our garden grows. It has been wonderful to share, wonderful to teach, to enjoy strangers’ awe at the work we have so fully poured ourselves into.
It’s funny how my dream was for a secret garden, full of beauty and wonder, and instead, I got one that is anything but secret. Some mornings, though, before my children are awake and the responsibilities of the day make their demands, I make a beeline through the garden, right to the back. There, between a few overgrown beds, I’ll lie down on my back and completely disappear beneath massive squash leaves and reaching cucumber vines.
There, in the secret place of the garden, I thank God for the healing I’ve found, and I realize that the secret garden was not wonderful because it was hidden. It was wonderful because it was found and shared.
A found and shared and completely marvelous garden bursting with life and loveliness. One where friends and strangers alike have been inspired, where plants help their neighbors thrive and flowers worship the sun from morning to night. All just beyond a hot pink door. This is my garden. How could I hide it?
To watch Jessica’s garden tours, visit her YouTube channel, Roots and Refuge