How Gardening Helped One Woman Through Challenging Times

For Jessica Watkins, the desire for a garden was more than just wanting flowers and plants.

woman gardening

Photo by Gallery Stock

Photo by Gallery Stock

I rented a garden. Actually, a run-of-the-mill ranch house with a backyard that I believed could be a garden. Enclosed within the walls was a strip of brown grass, a slab of concrete that was more cracks and missing chunks than patio, a couple of woefully neglected David Austin roses and more weeds, dandelions and, oddly enough, dill and basil than seemed possible in a space so small. 

Would-be renters oohed and aahed over granite-like countertops and faux hardwood floors, then grimaced at the dismal backyard. None could imagine a garden growing there, but I could. For me, it was love at first sight.

I immediately started planning and drawing sketches. I’d fill the patio’s cracks with flowering thyme or mint—either would smell delicious when crushed underfoot. Maybe I could find wicker chairs and a small table at a yard sale. Nothing fancy, just somewhere to drink a first cup of coffee early in the morning when everything is dewy and quiet. 

What to do about those boring walls? Boston ivy, or maybe fiery bougainvillea or heavenly scented Japanese honeysuckle, or even old-fashioned morning glories, lush with leaves the size of dinner plates and delicate flowers of royal purple and watercolor blue. Those inexpensive plants—a plus with my limited budget—are invasive, but if ever a yard was in need of some major invasiveness it was this space. 

I would grow tomatoes and sweet corn and sunflowers and lavender and roses. There must be more roses!

At least half a dozen times before I signed the lease, I waffled. Was I ready to make this kind of financial commitment over an imagined garden? But it was more than that, I reminded myself. There was a practical reason. As the caregiver for a brother who had  endured a stroke and cancer as well as other medical issues, my days and weeks and months over the last few years had been regimented with doctor appointments, hospital stays, medicine schedules and depths of sadness and fear that I would have never believed either of us capable of experiencing. 

The apartment we moved into when he got sick was small and practical—near the medical buildings and hospital. But no matter how many twinkle lights I hung or planters I filled with fiery-red geraniums, it always felt like a waiting room for the next crisis—never a home. We were surviving in that dark, sensible, affordable box, but we certainly weren’t thriving.

The morning after the move, I was outside before the sun was up with coffee in one hand, garden sketchbook in the other. I couldn’t remember the last time I had felt as excited about anything as I did over this wreck of a yard. I’d sketch dozens of gardens by the dim light of a heart monitor in the ICU: fanciful gardens with bridges and trees and shrubs fashioned out of rosemary and thyme, Italian gardens with slender cypress trees and round olive trees and fields of violets on the edge of a vineyard, English cottage gardens with primroses and sweet peas and hollyhocks, and, during a particularly terrifying summer, page after page of very elaborate, very serene Japanese gardens with koi ponds and maple trees and azaleas. It’s unlikely I’ll ever have a garden as grand as any of those, and that’s OK. Each served its purpose, mostly to keep me sane. 

Now I needed a real garden, a place to sink my hands into the soil, feel the sun on my shoulders, pull weeds and plant seeds. I needed to remind myself—and him too—that there will always be seedlings sprouting, tomatoes ripening, roses blooming. That while there will always be darkness, there will also be light. And for as many endings as there are, there are just as many beginnings.

Jessica Watkins lives in Southern California, sandwiched between the ocean and Disneyland, and loves to write about
food, family and always, always gardening.