Family Gardens


I just picked another day’s bounty of beautiful tomatoes. As I did, laughing, I thought of how similar our garden is to our efforts at parenting. At first glance, you see that red, juicy collection in my kitchen. Different varieties, all healthy and just right–a tomato’s tomato.

But look at our garden! It’s like Jack in the Beanstalk meets Eden-after-the-Fall. I literally wade in, trying not to crush the plants, while I lift up heavy ropes of stem and pluck off the ripe ones. There are at least a hundred still clinging to the vines, stretching out our harvest into late September. There are lots of weeds, and I think some bell peppers or hot peppers, I can’t really tell.

We’ve had gardens before, but this year decided to just plant a couple of tomato plants and forego the typical lettuce, squash, basil, peppers and beans. Past seasons have shown us that we don’t pick the vegetables in time or that we have way too much squash for our many squash averse family members. So this year, we started off intentionally with our little tomato garden.

Andrew prepared the soil, got rid of the winter weeds, added some fresh dirt and planted our tender starts. He watered and watched the fenced in space for at least a couple of weeks. Then we went on with our life. Not that we were traveling–we were home, all the time. But tomatoes don’t scream, so we mostly paid attention to the loudest attention getters.

The next thing we knew, our purposeful garden had exploded into a number of tomato plants, most volunteers from last year. We had at least six varieties. They were haphazardly entwined with each other, some climbing the netting that keeps away deer, others sneaking under the loose spots into the backyard. Distributed across the garden bed were tomatoes gently resting on that nice soil. Sharp thorny weeds enjoyed the space too, but most were crowded out by the tomatoes. A few other pepper types from last year crept in among the thicket. So much for the soil.

We thought about staking them. But we had so many, it didn’t seem worth the effort. The vines break if handled too much when already heavy with fruit. Our free range tomatoes were doing well without a lot of interference at this point. True, some didn’t get enough light as they kept extending along the ground. It apparently rains enough for them, since we don’t water. (Even though a sprinkler sits at the ready nearby.) I’m enjoying the gift of these tomatoes, even if I can’t take credit for them.

I can’t help but smile, even as I write, as I consider how much our garden reflects our family life. There are always seasons, some better than others. Andrew and I are often full of good intentions. We do our research, make plans and get off to a well executed start. But follow through is hard, and let’s be real, often full of painful weeding. Ironically, sometimes families find that all that constant work is reflected in a tidy home life, but may not always result in a bountiful harvest, or a lot of variety.

We had grand plans for a sweet family life marked by order, tenderness and constant care. We started well. We wondered why some people seemed to struggle so much with a couple of babies. It was easy! But pretty quickly our brood multiplied faster than we had imagined and we found our order often replaced by entanglements, constant growth out of our boundary markers and lots of fatigue among the caretakers. Those darling little starts grew up and redefined for us what it meant to be parents.

I’ve learned a lot through the years of family tending. It does matter to make the soil rich in life-giving nutrients. But there is no getting around the down side of family dirt. Weeds thrive and choke and poke. A lot of what we grow in our family is because of volunteers–those unexpected gifts of children, personality, temperament and talent that sprout up without our help or control. It never really looks like what we planned. So much is out of our hands, no matter how expert we are at the idea of parenting. Just like those garden books on my shelf, parenting books are mostly for decoration and an occasional glance. They aren’t much help in the day to day reality.

And we fail at so much–sometimes not giving enough attention, or the wrong attention. I’m sure there were times a child needed us to be a stake to lean on for support, and we were busy with something else that seemed more needy. We didn’t hover, wanting our children to find their way according to how they are made. Were we too carefree, or too rigid? Our parenting has always been marked by a feeling of inadequacy as we look at the families others have grown and wonder how we might ever reach their distinction of master parents.

The truth is, I’ll never be a master gardener or a master parent. But I sure am grateful for my family garden and smile when I consider our bumper crop! Despite our lapses, there was evidently enough sun, shade, water and attention to make it to this stage. Thank heaven for the graces in all that. Apparently there are plenty of ways to grow tomatoes, and families, that turn out well, even if it looks messy and a bit unappealing. A little taste of carefree is a welcome drink on a long hot summer day.

Published by jenniemclaurin

I'm a wonderer and a wanderer who likes to think about the intersections of science, faith, culture and the natural world. Hiking, family, medicine, travel and a collection of writers and mystics inspire me. I make my living in the land of public health, as a pediatrician. I live my life in the Pacific Northwest.

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