One of the indisputable perks of writing this column for more than a decade is that I have met an astonishing number of people who share my passion for vegetable gardening. I'm using the word "met" loosely here, as many of these acquaintances have been fashioned casually through e-mail or over the phone.
In most cases, I know nothing about the people who contact me, except for such isolated details as their favorite variety of lettuce or the kind of insect that is ravaging their squash. But embedded in these exchanges is a shared appreciation for digging in the dirt and making vegetables grow.
It is gardening's equivalent to the secret handshake, an instant bond that links people through a single common experience that transcends politics and religion and all of our other differences. For many gardeners, growing things is what maintains our sanity in an otherwise complicated world, allowing us to participate in a natural process that requires both devotion and submission to forces outside our control.
Gardeners understand that their spiritual well-being is tied to working the soil, and for many, planting vegetables every spring becomes one of the most important aspects of their lives.
Yet gardening rarely receives mention in a gardener's obituary, unless it's to reduce the whole thing to a cliche, as in the deceased was "an avid gardener." Membership in an organized gardening club or a blue ribbon at the fair might be noted, but even the most die-hard among us rarely have credentials. In most cases the hours upon hours a gardener has spent for six months of many years of his or her life pass from view without comment.
I intend no criticism of bereaved families who scramble to gather biographical information on a moment's notice and omit what they've always considered their loved one's hobby. I well understand how Uncle George's lodge membership makes the cut but his heirloom tomatoes do not. I would argue, however, that the full measure of a person who gardens cannot be taken without acknowledging that commitment in a meaningful way.
I saw this pattern repeated last week as I scanned the newspaper obituaries, an activity I do with greater regularity the older I get. As has happened with depressing frequency, I saw listed there the name of one of my gardening compatriots, an acquaintance I had made through this column, in this case someone I had actually met.
I had surgery five years ago this month and, as the planting dates came and went, resigned myself to not putting in a garden that year. Late in the spring of 2003 I wrote a somewhat whiny column about my plight and invited myself to visit others' gardens in order to write about them in lieu of my own.
One of the people who contacted me was Betty Gates, who died Feb. 23 and whose obituary was published last week. Betty had herself dealt with health issues that had curtailed her own gardening from time to time, and her empathy for my situation was both personal and genuine.
In June 2003, I spent a leisurely afternoon in the 60-foot-by-60-foot garden that she and her husband, Pat, had tended for many years in a clearing behind their house north of Baldwin City. Each year they started their own seeds indoors and transplanted herbs and vegetables into their terraced garden, which combined rows and raised beds. Ringed by a high fence to keep wildlife at bay and lit up by a glorious border of daylilies, larkspur and hollyhocks, the Gateses' garden was a paradise on Earth. The investment of time and care was evident, as were the satisfaction and contentment the couple derived from their labor.
I carry with me the mental snapshot of two lawn chairs set up inside Betty's pottery shed near the garden, where the couple sat at the end of the day, as the sun set, and looked out upon their good works.
Pat passed away last August, and now Betty is gone as well. On the afternoon of our visit I learned very little about them that didn't pertain to gardening, but we understood each other in a way that takes people years to develop in other contexts. They will be forever defined in my memory by the beauty of their garden and the joy they found in it.