Grief and Gardening

This month, an essay I wrote about dad and gardening was published in Northern Gardener magazine. You can catch a glimpse of it here. It was shortened a bit since in typical Probst fashion, I was a bit wordy – so the full version continues on below. I learned a lot from my garden this past summer, including a bit about faith. There are so many things I never told my dad, but topping the list is just how much of him lives on in me.

Grieving in the Garden

Father daughter bonds take many shapes and sizes. For me, gardening offers me a rare moment to reconnect with dad. At just 42, I became an orphan. The story is complicated but the void in my heart is easy for any daughter to understand. Sure, I knew my parents wouldn’t live forever. But, my dad had 1,000 lives and for a while seemed invincible. Despite defeating the odds over and over again, it was a minor case of pneumonia that blindsided me Christmas Eve and left me alone.

Now, a few months later I find myself looking to the soil for answers. My dad and I shared a common love for making things grow.  Growing up, gardening season started at the local feed mill in early spring. It was there, I’d watch my dad slowly count out the exact number of seeds he’d need and place them gently in a brown paper sack. We’d then move on to the potato starters picking the ones with the funniest eyes. Back home, I’d watch him turn the soil over with fresh manure, prepping it for planting, but not placing a single seed in the soil.

“Is it time,” I’d ask almost daily. “Nope. You must be patient.” This was one virtue I didn’t inherit from dad. Finally, after what seemed like a lifetime, my dad would determine it was time to plant.

One by one we’d place the seeds in rows marked by twine. We’d round out our plantings with small tomato and cucumber plants from the local greenhouse. And then we’d wait.  As the weeks dragged on, I’d watch my dad lovingly water and weed those tiny buds.

“Is it time,” I’d ask in earnest every day. “Nope. You must be patient.” I’d see those initial white blossoms morph into tiny pea pods knowing that someday we’d finally pick our first super sugar snap pea of the season. I can still taste it. Green beans soon followed with juicy cherry tomatoes, bi-colored sweet corn and bright red raspberries. Endless rows of cucumbers were soon ready to be canned in mom’s secret pickle recipe. Each day, I’d wander the garden in awe of what transpired over the summer. Dad made it seem so simple.

Years later, I’d try to replicate the magic in a makeshift garden in my first home. The veil was pulled back. Without the loving eyes (and watering) of dad, the plants died. I discovered that cheap soil, no fertilizer and an unfenced area in a heavily populated deer area spelled disaster. Weeks later, I glanced at my shriveled up decaying plants and decided I was too busy to tend to the garden. By summer’s end, the once plotted space was nothing more than grassy weeds.

I’d move several times over the next few years. Each move marked a new opportunity to plant. But, something always got in the way. And when it did, dad would share his bounty with me. As time went on, dad’s declining health limited that bounty. I didn’t realize it then, but I wanted to make up for lost time. So I returned to gardening.

I began plotting my vision of the perfect garden. Every year involved bigger and better. My husband tried to keep up with my growing demands of more raised beds, additional fencing, more hoses, more fruit trees, and perennials. We trucked in fresh manure. We fenced and fended some more. Despite being on a small lake lot with acreage under 2.0, the project quickly became unmanageable.  To overcompensate, I planted what was easy and could grow no matter what.

It started with the beans. There were so many beans. Purple beans. Green beans. Beans on top of beans.  And then there were the zucchinis.  I don’t even like zucchini. But it grew fast and furious in my garden, somehow compensating for my missed years.

I proudly shared my bounty with dad. “I don’t even like zucchini,” he’d quietly hint as I brought him baskets of them. “But I grew them, dad.”

“So, why don’t you eat them,” he’d say. (He knew I disliked them as well).

Back and forth we’d banter. He’d hint, in a not so subtle way, what he wanted from my garden. And, I’d try to navigate around the fact that we liked the same things and I didn’t want to give him my cherished sweet peas because I wanted them all for myself. I even attempted to pass off sweet peas from the Farmer’s Market as mine. He instantly knew they weren’t. This push pull relationship continued for years, yet for some reason I kept planting the zucchinis.

After my son was born, my priorities shifted yet again. The balancing act of being mom, daughter, wife, professional caught up to me. Areas of the garden were quickly taken over with mint. My raspberry bushes left untrimmed spreading like wildfire. Asparagus quickly became trimmed to the nub by north woods creatures and my unfertilized lingonberries succumbed to their demise. Areas of fencing now aged, were nothing but a minor inconvenience for the resident deer in the neighborhood. But yet the zucchinis kept growing.

Last summer I finally stopped. The garden scaled back to a mere four, 4×4 beds and a small plot of raspberries, sweet peas, sunflowers and mint. A few fruit trees remain and deer friendly perennials surround a newly made (and easily maintained) rock garden. I fertilized and doubled down on water. My dad, now an amputee, gladly accepted my single, simple offering of sweet cherry tomatoes and a few sugar snaps that I snatched from my son’s hands.  

“You might get this gardening thing down, yet,” he’d say before giving a friendly suggestion on how to improve my outcomes. “You just need to be patient.”

In hospice, dad declined quickly. I suddenly understood we were out of summers. There would be no more garden banter about how to make things better. His parting words of “I’m proud of you girls and I love you” captured a lifetime of love in a single moment. And then he was gone.

Due to COVID-19, there was no funeral and I’m left wondering how to live out my dad’s legacy. There are so many things I could do. Do I plant a tree or an entire apple orchard? A garden statue? Planters? My dad loved blueberries. I thumb through countless mail order catalogs looking for the perfect tribute. I turn to Pinterest. But, each time I’m overwhelmed with grief.

Like clockwork, spring finally arrives in the north woods. I find myself longing to solve this legacy question so I can check grief off my to-do list. If only it were that easy. Instead, bare ground looks back at me. I return to the basics. Prep the soil. Fertilize it. Plant it with what you love. Water it. Nurture it. Each movement is a living legacy to dad. Each time, it gets a little easier.  Turns out, grief like gardening, needs patience and grace.