Lessons From the Garden

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garden lessons

The dew had almost dried on the warm spring morning. After long winter hours of studying the Old Farmer’s Almanac and finding the right phase of the moon, my dad chose this Saturday in April to plant the family garden.

Dad added fresh gasoline and checked the oil in the 1950s Troy-Bilt tiller. A few sputters and clinks later, the motor churned, caught and pulverized the soil. Soon, the sweet smell of fresh-turned earth permeated the country air.

Spreading a wagon load of dried manure and turning it under, he was ready to lay out the rows in an east to west direction. This is where I came in. Breaking a short stick from the backyard pear tree, I unwound a ball of string collected over the winter. Cutting and tying one end to the stick and pushing it into the top of the row with the opposite end approximately 50 feet below would make for a straight furrow.

Standing at the end with both hands on his hips, Dad surveyed the row.

“Make your first row straight and the others will follow. Also, allow space between rows. Too close and you can’t plow between the plants. Too much, and ground space is wasted.”

Was it Gibran the Prophet, who said, “Allow space in your togetherness…?”

Mother and Aunt Jessie opened the Mason jars holding last year’s seeds. Carefully preserved in the GE chest freezer, the seeds were another means of frugal living. “You reap what you sow!” remarked Aunt Jessie as she carefully opened the small envelopes enclosed in the jars.

The first row planted was marigolds. The age-old custom of companion planting, a relationship of plants to insects, kept the garden free of aphids. Other than being a deterrent to pests, the flowers gave Mother something beautiful to focus on during the long hours of gathering vegetables. And Dad carefully tended the flowers, just as the vegetables, as a way of showing love for his wife.

Looking at all the seeds and the long rows to plant, I could relate to my friends who were given the job of planting black-eyed peas. (Perhaps it was the healthy night crawlers in the fresh-turned dirt that brought up this memory.) After the first long row, they surmised how long it would take to finish the task. Plus, crappie were biting and the creek was nearby. So, instead of planting rows, they dug one hole and buried all the peas. They never realized that in just a week or so, the peas would all sprout and appear in one place – surely a lesson in the idea that your sins will find you out.

Next came two rows of Fordhook lima beans. Unbeknownst to me, my dad slipped three or four purple butter beans to the row. When gathering time came, in my childlike innocence, I would shell for hours in hopes of finding the purple beans. This prize meant verbal congratulations from relatives who came to shell and for me, a nickel prize – once even a quarter! Never studying B.F. Skinner, my parents used behavior modification in raising children. Those times when I wanted to pursue other interests, instead of preparing food for canning or freezing, Mother would say, “Work is good for you! Do you want to eat only dried beans this winter like some families we know?”

Even in the spring, the noon sun bore down on our straw hats and T-shirt clad shoulders like warmth from a sizzling steam iron. From the top of the garden, Dad signaled a break. To make planting the garden a treat – instead of work – Mother prepared a picnic basket of fried chicken, slices of hoop cheese, homemade bread and old-fashioned lemonade. Throwing a red-and-white-checkered cloth under the pear tree, our exhausted bodies welcomed the rest.

To complete the meal, Dad pulled a couple of Red Delicious apples from his overalls. Like a skilled craftsman, he took his well-worn and sharpened pocket knife, squatted down in his usual position and peeled each apple in one long spiral – never allowing it to break until all peeling was removed. Then, he cut the fruit into sections and handed one to each of us.

These were the previous fall apples he grew from a tree ordered from Stark Brothers. As a method of preserving, he wrapped each apple in newspaper and stored them in a cardboard appliance box filled with pine straw. Nestled down in the center, the apples kept well throughout the winter and into the spring.

Just before sunset, our weary eyes surveyed the labor-intensive spring ritual. A multicolored sky, like golden ribbons on a child’s bonnet, floated over the barbed wire fence that bordered the back plot. Dad’s eyes caught the sun’s reflection.

“Red sky tonight, sailor’s delight,” he said, smiling. “Red sky in the morning, sailors take warning.” Picking up his hoe and empty envelopes of seeds, he finished the line: “Rain’s comin’ by morning!”

Thinking back to my childhood, the lessons learned from the garden not only sustained my early years, but have also become character-building traits that have given me the good life I enjoy today. And gardening, like other values we teach future generations, continues the legacy of learning from the Good Earth.

About the Author
Carolyn Tomlin is an author, speaker and coauthor of The Secret Holocaust Diaries: The Untold Story of Nonna Bannister. She cofounded and teaches at the Boot Camp for Christian Writers. Reach her at carolyn.tomlin@yahoo.com.


  1. Debbie Ames

    February 27, 2014 at 7:52 pm

    This bring back pleasant childhood memories of planting the annual garden with my grandmother and parents. Thank you so very much for allowing me to share your childhood experience laced with old familiar quotes and adages to make it that much sweeter.

    • Carolyn Tomlin

      March 2, 2014 at 4:38 pm


      Thank you for these comments. Writing is a way of returning to a more gentler time in life.


  2. Patricia Taylor

    August 2, 2015 at 11:59 pm

    Carolyn,This a wonderful account of events in your life that I’m sure are a treasure to you now. I can relate so well since I have helped my parents plant gardens. What precious memories we have of time well spent and the lessons we still use in our lives today. Thanks for sharing!

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