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How Gardening Saved My Life

Sounds dramatic, right? Well, that’s life. And I’m not sorry.

I grew up with gardeners and hobby farmers all around me. Eventually, I graduated from a high school that was known locally as Cow Pie High. Walking through the halls in the morning meant so-and-so would be leaving their tracks from their sh&t kickers as they trudged from their farm to the bus, then to school with clean clothes and shoes in their backpack as they didn’t quite have time to change after mucking out stalls. The school would smell like cow pies all day. But that’s life where we grew up.

I was never into gardening, I suspect perhaps in spite of my country upbringing. My dream was to move to a big city, live in a beautiful, open lofted apartment living “real life”. No smelly children, no spouse to cook for, and nobody to answer to other than my cats and far too many books. Fast forward to now. I’m 35. I may have lived a big chunk of my young adulthood in Chicago, but now have a husband, two children, two cats, and am obsessed with gardening.

Obsessed, y’all. Completely. Like… Truly Madly Deeply, it encompasses almost all of my thoughts kind of in love with gardening.

Flowers, vegetables, herbs, you name it. Organic is everything, and soil health-building is my jam. If there’s an AA style group for gardeners, I should sign up. Except I wouldn’t, because I will never stop. Ever. Not until I die, and even then I will leave a catalogue of heirloom seeds and a pile of aged manure as my legacy.

You see, in 2011, my husband and I tried our hands at container gardening on our balcony in Chicago, and failed. I knew absolutely nothing about light requirements, soil nutrition, USDA hardiness zones, nothing. But the end of the failed season brought us a few cherry tomatoes, a couple of basil leaves, and a deep wound left by the green thumb bug.

Now, ten years later, we’ve relocated twice (to smaller cities each time for my husband’s medical school and now surgical residency). I’m happy to say that we have learned and grown so much since then.

In 2019, my dad was diagnosed with lung cancer, and was given 5-7 months to live. He championed through treatments and pain for over a year beyond his diagnosis. I battled through depression (much thanks to Covid-19 and living life as a physician’s wife during a freaking pandemic, mixed with the reality that I was about to lose the only truly loving parent I had). Dad refused to let me visit, worried that any travel would risk getting my boys, myself, or my husband sick (which would lead to risking patient lives). I missed 6 of Dad’s last 7 months, but I was there for the last month and I know in my soul that with the help of my brother, he regained the last few ounces of dignity he deserved to have in his final days before his next chapter. He battled harder than ever in his final moments, but August 25, 2020, took him home.

Just a few days after getting home from Dad’s celebration of life, I got a call from my husband – it was September 6th. He shared the painful news that one of our own from the Gen Surg program, Dr. Mathew Malek, had taken his own life. I could go on and on with the how’s and why’s of the closeness of my family with Mat’s, but when all was said and done, I was done.

I felt dead inside. Empty. Ugly and worthless, helpless. For a time, I understood how easy it would be to just… leave. Then I sat in a chair next to the fireplace and let my children destroy our home for a few months. I pretended just enough to care by feeding the children, doing dishes once in a while, and occasionally I would change my clothes. But that was it. I wanted to go. I wished to just fall asleep and *poof*, be no more. I didn’t want to kill myself. Because… Just no. But understanding how easy it would be to go from where I was at that moment to where Mat had chosen to go. That terrified me.

And then. One random day, I remembered that while I was two states away from home, making fish tacos for Dad in his last week and eventually joining with my brother while we struggled with his end of life care, some miraculous humans stepped in to tend to my backyard garden. They kept it alive when I could not, and at a time that I sank so deeply into depression that I was quite literally afraid for my own life, I would look out into the yard and see the garden. Begging to be tended to. It reminded me of me. Tomatoes needing calcium. Blossom end rot taking entire plants. Lack of water. Wilting abounded.

I was afraid to go out to the garden, because I was used to sharing all my happy moments of our gardening journey with Dad. Photos, videos, phone calls of excitement and frustration. Every time we spoke, I could hear the sparkle in his eyes as he spoke to me about his excitement – it matched my own, and I was somehow afraid to remember those moments of joy. I was afraid to feel them again.

I was afraid that going into the garden would end me. If all those memories came back, I wouldn’t be able to take it.

One day, it was just warm enough. Just sunny enough.

I walked outside, opened our ramshackle garden gate, walked to the bench that was placed early in the season by my husband and another Gen Surg family member. A solid place to sit. I sat down.

For two hours, I sat on that bench and cried. My sweet boys played in the sand box, chased each other across the yard and back a hundred times. And then. Then, I got up and took care of the plants that were waiting patiently for me. I may have given up on me, but they didn’t.

Hours after the sun had gone down, I tucked my boys into their beds and booked a therapist through Better Help.

Sunshine. Water. Soil. Seeds. Hope for new life.

Hope.

Gardening saved my life.

Three Nerdy (But Fun!) Facts About Sunflowers

I have no shame in my garden geekery game, and these are some of the coolest facts about my all-time favorite flower!

A long-standing favorite for wow factor in the garden, sunflowers have the power to bring a smile to even the hardest-to-please gardeners. What’s not to love about a flower that brings a bit of that Jack and the Beanstalk feel to your garden? With stalks that can get to nearly twenty feet tall, those brightly colored giants of the garden can seem downright magical. While there are plenty of reasons to love these sunny beauties, these are my top three favorite nerdy nuggets of sunflower information.

  • Each “flower” isn’t a flower. It’s actually thousands of flowers! The “petals” are called ray florets, and the velvety center, where the seeds are produced, is made up of thousands of little disc florets. What we would typically call the flower is technically called a head.
  • The world’s tallest sunflower was grown relatively recently, in 2014. The German-born beauty grew to a massive thirty feet plus one extra inch! The grower had to build scaffolding to keep the stalk upright, and rightfully so; he wound up landing his sunny giant as the Guinness World Record-holder.
  • Sunflowers have made it as far as space! Don Pettit took some seeds along for his trip to the International Space Station, and successfully grew them! NASA has a section on their website dedicated to the blog that was kept updated during the Don’s gardening adventures, and I highly recommend checking it out. Garden geeks around the world are seriously missing out on this amazing story from 2012.

There are so many other little morsels I’d love to share with you about these incredibly versatile, wonderfully resilient rays of sunshine, but these are my current favorites. I hope you enjoyed today’s random rave about sunnies, and I look forward to babbling more about them in the future. Now – go forth into the world and spread your newfound nerdiness!