Life lessons learned from a small garden in Western Colorado

Mary Lyon (1797-1849) of Buckland, Massachusetts once wrote, “When you choose your fields of labor, go where nobody else is willing to go”.

Mary Lyon was the founder of one of the first colleges for women in the United States. She chartered Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in 1837, now known as Mount Holyoke College, and opened its doors to the first 80 female students who desired a more challenging curriculum of science and mathematics. She required the students from all ethnic backgrounds and economic resources to engage in chores and upkeep at the college to keep the cost of tuition at a reasonable rate. Her student body quickly grew and in 1843 she wrote the book A Missionary Offering which challenged the educational community to develop other college resources for women, which subsequently encouraged the opening of Wellesley and Smith Colleges. Poet Emily Dickinson, playwright Wendy Wasserstein, Virginia Apgar (developed the “Apgar score” for newborn infants), Francis Perkins (first woman to be appointed to the presidential cabinet), and Gloria Johnson-Powell (first Black woman to tenure at Harvard Medical School) are some of the fruits of her labor. Her roots grew from a small 100 acre farm in Massachusetts, where she and her siblings tended to the day-to-day operations of subsistence farming. Her first educational job was as an untrained teacher at the age of 17 in a local town in Massachusetts and she quickly realized that to grow as a professional teacher she would need more education. After enrolling in Sanderson Academy in Ashfield, her interests grew in the study of the sciences. After completing her education there she quickly realized her goal of desiring to share her experiences with other disadvantaged women in the turbulent times of the post-Civil War United States.

We could learn from this woman’s endeavors. Her first lessons came from farming such as the planting, growing, tending, and reaping of plants for food and materials. Her family farm chores were possibly mundane, but recognizing my own experiences observing how a family farm operated in central Illinois in the 1970’s, I can draw some reasonable conclusions on how these tasks must have impacted her own upbringing.

  1. For some to grow and prosper, others must be sacrificed. When small seeds, such as carrots, are planted in a neat little row they are often too small to pick out individually. So a gardener will plant the seeds in a haphazard way down a little 1/4″ deep row, then cover gently with a little of soil, to protect the seeds during their initial watering and emergence a few days to weeks away. When the primary leaves pop up there will be way too many seedlings to logically grow into carrots. If a gardener does not thin them out, they will compete with each other for resources, water, and sunlight, crowding each other, potentially all dying off and never growing into beautiful sweet tender carrots. Additionally if they are not thinned enough, a gardener perhaps feeling remorseful about the “taking of a life”, they will still be too spindly and overcrowded to grow into plump nice little salad offerings. Buddhism only goes so far.
  2. Unplanned surprises in life sometimes offer the most rewards. After gardening for several years accidental plantings will sometimes happen in a garden. I am reminded of three such occurrences this spring in my own gardening space. This sometimes happens during the fall when seed pods scatter, falling from birds or children playing. For example you might pick a raspberry for yourself and drop the innocent raspberry in some quiet, undisturbed fertile soil which might result in a lovely small raspberry bush popping up the next spring. I had a cute lone-wolf black seeded Simpson lettuce head grow between some paver stones on my makeshift patio. I let it grow and had a nice little salad. I did not pluck it because it “didn’t belong” with the sedums and tiny creeping thyme; who really cares anyway? Are there garden police out there? I don’t think so. I have little random Kale plants growing all over the place, even with my violas and pansies. Who knows how they got there? I have a single sunflower growing next to the fence right beside a pepper plant. Incidentally, I have tried for years to grow peppers unsuccessfully, it becomes Africa-hot during the middle of the day here in Gypsum, Colorado. It was too hot for every pepper I had planted, until now. I guess I discovered the micro-climate for growing peppers along one fence line. A gardening space is filled with many micro-climates that a good gardener has to explore through trial and error to find which plants thrive best in which locations. Sometimes it takes years and patience to find these micro-climates.
  3. Let life be life. We cannot control the forces of nature. We can try to nurture these forces with our own knowledge or the sharing of ideas but the cycle of life has a powerful healing quality of balance that will seek to reach an equilibrium within itself that we, as man or gardener, may have little influence upon. My raspberry bush pictured below began with one small $5 quart raspberry bush from a local gardening center. Now it has become friendly with my neighbor across the fence and he has a little raspberry patch. I had to cage it in with rocks and lava rock to control its babies sprouting forth like the ingenious idea I had at the age of 10 to buy a male and female hamster and “see what would happen”. (Don’t do this by the way). This process (the raspberry project not the rodent experiment) has only taken three years. I had some doubts. The first year my raspberry plant almost died. The second year the plant had a few berries, a couple of cousin plants, and mostly long, leggy stems which I cut back before winter slightly disappointed. Little did I know that plant was deep at work underground growing a root system that this spring showed its true purpose with so many little raspberry plants that I had to control them before they knocked my 1963 chain link fence down. Patience is definitely a virtue that a gardener must keep in mind. Things don’t occur or grow overnight, or even in one year. If you nurture the proper environment for something good to happen, it will happen eventually. It takes time. Within this digital and global world of instant gratification it’s good to remember things we learned in our past. It takes patience, time, and methodical planning for the end result to be fruitful in gardening and life.

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