Peaceable Man Files #33: Lessons on Dreaming Big From the Master Gardener
This time of year, with the long Memorial Day weekend ahead and the summer season about to kick off, I get to thinking about my late father and how busy he would be in years past at the farmette where we grew up.
May was the month when everything came together in Dad’s vegetable garden. All those months of meticulous planning, the testing and preparation of the soil, the plowing and discing and fertilizing, buying seeds and seedlings, staking out rows and laying out the beds—it all came together in those critical weeks between Mother’s Day and Memorial Day.
With the risk of frost in the past, a certain urgency drove the household to get everything into the ground so that we had the full months of summer heat to bring it all to fruition.
It was a big job, a massive job. This was no little tomato patch, after all. This was a garden designed by an engineer to produce vegetables in quantity. There had to be enough not just for the table, but to fill the freezer for the long winter and have enough left over to sell at our roadside stand.
It was the Kerr Garden of Plenty, planned, managed, and overseen by the master gardener himself, a man who grew up on a working dairy farm and knew how to get things to grow plump and green and healthy.
Just how big was Dad’s garden? Well, at its peak the garden filled the entire two-acre upper field of our six-acre property. That field had once been a hayfield before our enterprising father turned it over with his old Ford tractor and made it into something productive that would feed his family of eight and stretch the modest salary he made working as a quality-control engineer at the local electronics plant.
A painter has his canvas; a sculptor has his block of granite; a writer has his blank page. A farmer has his patch of ground, and into it goes the best of his energies, his labor, his imagination.
Dad’s garden started with his tomato plants—more than fifty of them, planted in neatly groomed beds lined with black plastic to keep down the weeds.
Next to the tomatoes were the rows of string beans, both yellow and green, enough to feed an army. Dad made multiple plantings of them, filling entire baskets with beans from July through October.
Then there was the sweet corn. Ah, that wonderful, fresh-picked Silver Queen sweet corn that melted in your mouth when boiled in water, rubbed in butter, and sprinkled with salt and pepper. We didn’t just have a few rows of corn; we had an acre and a half of it, planted in sections a few weeks apart so that we could enjoy corn well into the fall.
Filling in the space around those three staples was everything else: carrots, red beets, redskin potatoes, lettuce, peas, lima beans, broccoli, cauliflower, cucumbers, squash, cantaloupes, watermelon, pumpkins.
You name it, Dad grew it. Being a committed organic farmer, he grew it all without herbicides and pesticides, which meant we were constantly out there in the garden tilling and weeding.
Everyone helped out. We had to if we wanted to eat. Don’t bother making any Memorial Day weekend plans at the beach with friends because Dad needed us to help with the garden.
We didn’t mind. It was exciting. We were doing something important, something that made a difference to our family and to the neighborhood. We were helping the maestro with his master creation.
Every year, there were challenges. Fickle weather. Insects. Pesky varmints.
Every year, somehow Dad found a way to battle through those challenges to create a garden that produced a bountiful harvest.
What I learned in those years of helping Dad with his garden is that a master doesn’t just go out one day and create something awesome. He works at it. He puts time into it every day of the year, so that when the time comes to put those seeds in the ground, they grow to their full potential.
That was Dad. After the harvest was over in November, he was out in that garden clearing away stakes and fencing so he could spread manure from the horse barn. I remember him on cold winter days poring through the Burpee seed catalogues that came in the mail, dreaming of varieties he’d try in the year ahead.
Every month and season of the year, he was doing something involving the garden. After he passed away in 2019, we found among his things various pocket calendars from his years at the farm. Among the entries for work meetings, medical appointments, birthdays and holidays were dates when he needed to get the soil tested, buy seeds and fertilizer, make the first planting, make the second planting, make the third planting. Everything was planned out.
That was a master at work. No wonder his garden produced the way it did.
I sometimes wonder if it bothered Dad that none of his kids had the same passion for gardening that he did. In truth, though, I think what mattered most to Dad wasn’t what we did so much as how we did it.
If you’re going to do something, he used to say, do it right. Give it your all. Apply yourself to it. Make it something to be proud of.
“Be not like dumb, driven cattle!” he used to go around the house saying (quoting a Longfellow poem). “Be a hero in the strife!”
In other words, don’t be an amateur. Be an expert. Be a master.
His example is inspiration for me every day when I sit down to write. Writing is my passion. My books and stories are the garden I tend, and I do it every day.
Dream big, work hard, and the seeds of your dreams will grow into something. That, for me, was the lesson of Dad’s garden, the fruit it continues to produce all these years later.
Happy Memorial Day, everyone! Amidst all the fun, don’t forget to put out the flag to honor all the veterans who made the ultimate sacrifice for the freedoms we enjoy today.