My family plants a garden every summer. We live in a city and don’t have lots of room. Since our house is more than 100 years old, we created small raised beds, filled with compost and soil, to avoid growing veggies in what is potentially contaminated soil.
Although my husband and I have gardened together for years, when our twins were younger, we developed a haphazard technique. Before twins, we might have studied companion plants, figuring out what would grow best and where, but all that disappeared after two babies came on scene. Since then, every year, right around their birthday on June 1, we’d throw a planting party with some friends. First, we had the birthday ice cream cake and, then, we’d dig together. Within an hour, the entire garden was planted.
Sometimes, a retired history professor was in charge of bean planting. Our actor friend, who also worked as a mother’s helper for us when the kids were small, was in charge of squash. It was sometimes a surprise to see what the garden produced. We left it all to chance – what grows and what fails would be a surprise.
This year, no parties, of course. With two kids home from elementary school in mid-March, we started seeding. We planted lettuce, radish and spinach outdoors. We followed the advice of Winnipeg’s mayor, who suggested people “plant an extra row” for the food bank, as so many are out of work. We planted sprouting potato peelings as one of our home-school science projects, and filled every extra pot with potato plants.
In the Babylonian Talmud, in Tractate Shabbat, starting page 84b, the rabbis discuss how to plant a garden. What is an acceptable plan for a garden bed, which avoids the prohibition of sowing diverse kinds of seeds together, they ask? The rabbis engage in a level of landscaping planning that my gardens have never seen. In the Vilna edition, there are even illustrations and sketches provided.
This year in our garden, for the first time in awhile, we know where everything is and who planted what. I don’t have to call any of our friends to find out which variety of squash seeds they used and if they will be close enough to the others to pollinate properly!
What struck me though was that, unlike past years, we had time to spread out and enjoy the gardening experience. Yes, we’ve had virtual meetings for school and work, but the summer unfurls before us with practically nothing on the calendar – no traveling, no festivals, no big obligations. We’re still waiting to hear, but suspect there will be no summer camp or swim lessons at the lake either. Staying home is where it’s at.
Long, unplanned stretches of weekend time and summer evenings spool out ahead. We can stream services or watch a Jewish music concert from home, play on the porch or water the garden. True, we may not be able to travel to see grandparents or have big Shabbat dinners. We do miss our friends and family. However, we’ll have leisurely morning dog walks to explore new places and greet neighbours, long afternoons to help our kids learn to bike, fly kites, or just scooter up and down the block.
This scary coronavirus is stressful, don’t get me wrong. We’ve already felt its serious effects on relatives in New York and New Jersey. It continues to affect us in many ways and, even if summer’s a reprieve, the danger hasn’t passed. Yet, in the virus’s shadow, we’ve been offered a moment to adjust and experience an entirely different pace, and it’s a surprising gift on its own.
Yes, our garden is more orderly this year than it has been in at least 10 years, but it’s nothing as tidy or thoughtful as the rabbis’ landscaping guides. I suspect, if the rabbis were to see our garden beds, they would be upset. We squish way too many varieties of tomatoes, beans, peas, lettuces, cucumbers, herbs and more into these small spaces.
At the same time, our pandemic-enforced break may offer us the chance for longer conversations, more time off to enjoy family and Shabbat, and more learning, too. I can’t pretend the rabbis’ advice made us plant more tidy rows of beans, carrots or nasturtiums, but the pandemic likely gave me the time and space to read their advice, and actually think about it.
We’ve eaten two salads full of microgreens and herbs, straight from the garden, and I got to share with you what I’ve learned about 1,500-year-old planting advice. That’s not a bad start to the season. It’s also a reminder: get out in the sunshine! (With sunscreen and social distancing, of course.) Summer lies ahead – with newfound time to enjoy it.
Joanne Seiff has written regularly for CBC Manitoba and various Jewish publications. She is the author of three books, including From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016, a collection of essays available for digital download or as a paperback from Amazon. Check her out on Instagram @yrnspinner or at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.