Gardening in tune with creation

Posted Aug. 28, 2010, at 1:48 a.m.

The greatest joys in gardening often arise not from careful planning or practice, but from working in tune with creation. This year, for example, we are experiencing the joy brought to our garden by a weed not pulled.

One day, back in early June, I decided to not pull a small sunflower seedling growing on the edge of a bed planted to tomatoes and summer squash — to not consider it a weed. I remembered the native sunflowers we grew in that bed last year and thought this plant might have grown from a seed missed by the goldfinches, though there is no way to know for sure.

By the end of June, the sunflower plant had grown taller than all of last year’s possible parents, tall enough to require staking. The optimist in me reached for the longest pole I could find, a stout arrowwood stem of 8 feet. Even after sinking it 2 feet into the ground, it was still 2 feet taller than the sunflower.

Now this volunteer sunflower stands 9-feet tall. At the tip of the stake it splits into several branches, each bearing several 6-inch flowers, each flower a dark center cluster of fertile disk flowers surrounded by golden yellow ray petals. At last count there were 15 heads, the oldest missing the halo of bright yellow but attracting the attention of equally brilliant goldfinches.

Wherever we are in the garden, this sunflower towers over us; it is the center of the garden universe with all other garden life revolving around it. In addition to the goldfinches, hummingbirds sip nectar from the small disc flowers and bumblebees crawl across sunlit landscapes in search of pollen.

Now, imagine me rising early one morning to prune a single sunflower, the most perfect in form, placing its stem in a small, narrow vase of water and displaying it through the day surrounded by dozens of other cut flowers, all in identical vases on identical tables against the walls of a large room. In front of my flower is a small card that, like all the other identical cards, designates my entry in this flower show — “Sunflower” — and my name printed on a line marked “Gardener.”

There are several vases of cosmos at the show, all looking the same, and several sunflowers with only slight variations in form and color. There are dahlias and daylilies, iris and zinnias, flowers of every ilk, some holding up better than others. Some of the cards bear ribbons, awards from judging earlier in the day. Visitors walk soberly around the circle, pretending to understand the difference between the award-winning pink cosmos and the other four pink cosmos that look exactly like the winner.

I cannot speak to the gain in such displays, but lost are the joys and mysteries of the plant as part of the garden. This happens when we shift the focus from garden to gardener.

My sunflower would not have a chance at a ribbon. I cannot take credit for it. I don’t even know its name. But among all of the plants growing in Marjorie’s garden, this single volunteer giant gives me the greatest joy. It greets me in the morning as I look out on the garden from the porch, the gently waving heads giving bumblebees a ride. It is a constant presence as I work in the garden. It is the last plant to disappear into the darkness of night as it grudgingly gives up the light held in those golden petals.

I look up from my garden work to see a goldfinch pecking at a seedhead and think perhaps I should bag a head or two, save some seed of this magnificent plant for next year’s garden. But then I decide no, this tall sunflower was a gift of joy to the birds, to the bees, to me, to all the creatures of this garden. The mystery of its appearance is part of that joy.

I wanted to tell you about this sunflower, inspired in my effort by the words of G. K. Chesterton: “The whole universe is praising God; will I alone be silent?”

Was Chesterton speaking for all of humanity? We sever our connections with the rest of the garden at the risk of losing the joys and mysteries that come from gardening in tune with creation.

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