A year ago I was just out of the hospital after a kidney transplant. It was February, the time of year when I normally would be planting potatoes, peas, onions, poppies and cilantro. Not yet able to travel, I was staying with my cousins, Bill and Laveta, in Kansas City, Missouri.
My bedroom looked out on their back yard and over into their neighbors’ yard. The winter was mild and I was feeling the urge to garden again.
One day I noticed a bit of earth that someone had dug up in the neighbors’ back yard. This was not the red clay and rocky soil found in the Ozarks where I live, but the black, rich soil of the area where the Santa Fe and Oregon Trails began.
I mentioned the dug-up patch of earth to my cousins, saying the neighbor must be anxious for the garden season to begin.
“Oh, no,” Bill said. “That’s Sarah, our neighbor’s granddaughter. She goes outside and digs every time they let her out to play.”
When I inquired about Sarah age, I was completely surprised by Bill’s answer.
“She’s just 3,” he said.
I learned Sarah loves to dig in the earth. Not just a little dab here and a jab there, like you would expect a 3 year old to do—this was a systematic turning over of the soil, beginning at one corner and extending out across the bed. She had borrowed her grandfather’s hand trowel, and every day her favorite pastime was to dig and pretend she was planting flowers.
As I healed, Bill drove me back and forth between Kansas City and the Ozarks so I could go home for brief periods between doctor’s appointments. Each time we returned to Kansas City, I looked forward to seeing Sarah’s progress and I would check on her project as soon as I settled in.
Eventually, Sarah had shallowly tilled an area about 3 feet wide and 8 feet long. The spot looked, from my vantage point at least, like it was ready to plant.
Bill and Laveta told me Sarah’s grandparents weren’t always pleased that she got so dirty each day. They wished she didn’t dig in the ground so much. They also said she pretended to scatter imaginary seed, then she would carry water in her little play bucket and water them. Sarah already knew what it took to make a garden grow.
I expressed my hope that her grandparents would buy her real seed and give her the opportunity to garden. I thought back to my own first garden when I was 5, and how grateful I remain to my parents for letting me make all the mistakes a 5-year-old can make in a garden.
I remembered getting to choose the seeds and plant them in my own space, planting everything too closely so I could grow everything I wanted. I recalled how fast the weeds grew, how hot and miserable I was using my toy hoe in July. But I also remembered my mother proudly displaying every radish, sprig of dill, little pea or mint leaf I grew that
In early May after my last appointment at the hospital, I looked out my cousins’ window to check on Sarah’s garden. It was completely tilled and fenced with 4-foot-high chicken wire. I asked Bill if Sarah had finally been allowed to plant her garden. He said he didn’t think so. Her grandfather had fenced the garden to plant tomatoes, so Sarah’s play garden had been replaced.
I felt bad for Sarah. I wanted to bring her seed packets and tell her to dig up another patch. I wanted to encourage her to not give up but to find another place to plant. I hoped Sarah’s grandparents let her help plant the tomatoes and would encourage her budding love for gardening.
Watching Sarah’s determination—her hope-filled progress—week after week, in cold weather, was inspirational. If a 3-year-old could garden given her limitations, surely I could do no less. And as spring came and I healed, I thought of Sarah many times as I began to garden again.
Jim Long gardens in the Ozarks Mountains and welcomes readers’ comments and questions. Contact him at www.herbcompanion.com/contributors