Get Growing with Mickey Rathbun: Thoughts of the garden in winter: Gardening has its discouraging moments, yet we persevere

Gardening has its discouraging moments and seasons, for sure. And yet, we persevere. We enjoy whatever nature decided to leave for us.

Gardening has its discouraging moments and seasons, for sure. And yet, we persevere. We enjoy whatever nature decided to leave for us. PEXELS


For the Gazette

Published: 01-12-2024 12:13 PM

There’s not a lot going on in my garden, now blanketed under a foot of snow, to inspire this month’s column. So I took a break from dreaming over the spring promise of seed catalogs and went in search of a soul-satisfying poem about the garden in winter. I wasn’t finding the right prompt until I came across this on the Poetry Foundation’s website:

A Garden’s End

Forsythia, scaled and bud-bangled,

I pruned to a thatch of leaves

for the curb, by the squirrel-gnawed

corn, silk strewn, kernels tooth carved

and husks shorn over the ground

pocked with paw prints.

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The borers mashed the squash vine,

the drought tugged the roots of sage,

catmint languished by the sidewalk,

tools grew flowers of rust.

That winter we left our hope

beneath the snow, loved through the last

of the onions, watched the late leeks freeze

to crystal, bent like sedges, their shadows

on the snow. That winter we left

our hope beneath the snow.

– Gabriel Welsch

I have occasionally mentioned in this column that I have a somewhat defeatist attitude about my gardening endeavors. When things go according to plan, or even exceed my modest expectations, I am always pleasantly surprised. When things go awry — a dearly beloved plant dies for no apparent reason, or a supposedly well-behaved groundcover threatens to take over the neighborhood — some small part of me takes it as a personal failing. I am always grateful to learn from other gardeners, especially seasoned hands and professionals, that they also have mishaps in the garden. It’s not just me.

Gabriel Welsch’s poem speaks to this side of me. Scale has attacked his forsythia, squirrels have eaten his corn, borers have mashed his squash vine, and drought has weakened the most drought-tolerant plants. The only thing blooming is the rust on his tools, a sardonic reproach to his efforts. How do we cope in the face of such doom and gloom?

I emailed Welsch to seek permission to reprint the poem and he replied that he’d be happy to have me use it. But then, to my shock and delight, he added that he’d be particularly pleased to have it published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette because he and his family lived in Hadley from 1980 to 1984, during which time he attended Hopkins Academy and worked part-time at Wanczyk Evergreen Nursery on Russell St.

I was curious about how Welsch had come to write such a poem. So I gave him a call (he now is vice president for marketing and communications at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh). He said he’s been involved in gardening and horticulture ever since starting work at age 13 at Wanczyk, where his first assignment was to pot bare-rooted junipers. He continued working part-time at a plant nursery in Pennsylvania during college and graduate school (he earned an MFA in English from Penn State and a certificate from Harvard’s Graduate School of Education) and went on to become a professional landscaper. Fifteen years later, faced with the reality that landscapers never see their spouses between March and September and develop painfully bad knees, he made a career pivot into university life. But he’s never stopped gardening, although he admits his garden is quite a bit smaller these days than it was 20 years earlier when he wrote “The Garden’s End.”

Writing poetry and short stories has always been central to Welsch, who has published two books of poetry and one book of stories. And his writing has always been heavily informed by gardening. He told me that “The Garden’s End” was featured in a 2013 column by then U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser and subsequently reprinted in newspapers and garden club newsletters across the country.

Welsch told me that the poem was inspired by an unfortunate garden season he had suffered 20 years ago when he and his wife were living in State College, PA. He explained that a neighborhood cat had patrolled the area vigilantly, keeping squirrels and other garden pests in check. But one day the fearsome cat bit a child and was “sent away.” Overnight, he recalled, the squirrels descended on the garden and ate all the corn. His zucchini had already fallen prey to borers. The garden was parched by drought.

I asked him whether he meant the poem to be downbeat. He responded that while different readers have different reactions, he felt it was optimistic. That “leaving our hope beneath the snow” suggested that “the garden doesn’t actually end.”

Gardening has its discouraging moments and seasons, for sure. And yet, we persevere. We enjoy whatever nature decided to leave for us. Like Welsch, we bury our hope in the snow, knowing that it will reemerge with the warming of spring, for new triumphs and our share of disappointments.

Mickey Rathbun is an Amherst-based writer whose new book, “The Real Gatsby: George Gordon Moore, A Granddaughter’s Memoir,” has recently been published by White River Press.