Problems of Place: The Inconstant Gardener

A butterfly alights on a pink zinnia.

Last spring, I planted two dwarf apple trees in my Kansas City backyard. My partner and I have owned this house for nearly five years, and every spring I thought about planting those trees, but I stalled. I did not know how long we would live here, and I worried that we would be gone long before the trees bore fruit. So I hesitated.

Every year that I waited, though, was another year that my apple trees could have been growing. Last spring, I decided that it did not matter whether I was here when the trees were big enough to bloom. They could never grow if they were never planted. At least someone else could enjoy the fruit. I ordered Ginger Gold and Honeycrisp trees, and dug holes for them with my spade in the backyard.

Six months later, I submitted applications for doctoral programs across the country.

I have wasted more energy than I care to admit wishing that I had found my way to a career in history earlier, wondering if I should have made different choices in life. My bachelor’s degree is in another field, and it took years to give myself permission to return to graduate school. I think worry about the timing of a doctoral degree weighs more heavily on women, especially if they are considering having children. As with my apple trees, though, the only options are to bemoan lost time, or start now, and know that good results will follow, even if those results are different than I expected, and their timing is complicated.

Other EHN contributors have written eloquently about the challenges of putting down roots while in academia, but my challenge is different. I have roots: a house and garden, a partner with his own established career, a troublesome dog. My parents moved to Kansas City to be closer to us. Now, I am about to stretch those roots nearly to the breaking point. This fall, I will start a doctoral program on the East Coast, maintaining a long distance relationship with my partner.

At the risk of being a walking cliché, I have found that gardening offers endless lessons. One is that there is never a perfect time to plant an apple tree. We might sell our house before the trees grow large enough to produce apples. They might snap in a thunderstorm. The only thing I know for sure is that there will not be fruit in the future if I don’t plant the trees.

A bee rests on a purple bee balm blossom.I am an impatient gardener. For years, I grew only vegetables, because the more immediate reward—fresh food—motivated me to weed and water. I was slow to come around to perennials; planting them seemed like too much commitment, and I feared they would die (I do not have a particularly green thumb, and we have a persistent and hungry rabbit population). Then, after my first year in a Master’s program, too busy to manage a large vegetable garden, I gave in and planted coneflowers, salvia, bee balm, and foxglove beardtongue. If I couldn’t produce food from my garden, I could at least offer sustenance for insects and birds.

That summer was disappointing. The rabbits ate most of the coneflowers, and the plants seemed to limp along. I have learned, though, that the true magic of perennials comes with their second year, and the years after that. Roots firmly established, they return larger and livelier and suddenly, in the spring, a whole garden is in bloom. This year, eager to reduce our lawn, my partner and I planted more perennials in the front yard. I have enough faith and knowledge now to know that they will come back stronger next spring—whether I am here or not.

In their second year in the garden, my apple trees seem happy, although one is a bit crooked from snow. As they leaf out, I am making plans for the fall, to pursue an education that is too important to me to give up for imperfect timing. While I work, my garden, more faithful to me than I am to it, will be there, growing, living, blooming, fading. I will trade regular, constant work for deep maintenance during breaks. My life, too, may grow weedy and need extra attention when I am home. It gives me comfort to know, though, that my garden will be here, blooming, reminding my partner and me that I will also return, again and again, fuller and stronger.