“1, 2, 3. Water, food, sun”. That was one of the few things I remember hearing my grandfather say. He was an unusually quiet man; most of us close to him could probably count on one hand the amount of sentences we ever heard come from his lips. The occasional request for more dessert, the rarely expressed opinion on a baseball game, and the infrequent and sly retort to a reprimand from my grandmother was nearly all that his vocabulary ever lended itself to. However, this one unconventional phrase sticks out to me more than the rest.
The same man who rarely spoke was the man could grow a tree out of a slab of concrete. Being raised as one of twelve on an over 1,000-acre-farm, my grandfather was known for having the ability to grow anything in the harshest conditions, working hard in a garden bed long before the sun awoke and many hours after it rested, and dropping off heaping sacks of fresh produce at all the neighbors’ front doors without a word. It was his whole life. Even at ninety-six when he passed, there remained his now two-acre garden, perfectly kept and beautifully manicured, with all of us wondering how in the world to care for it like John had.
It was as a teenager I remember him uttering the phrase. At about sixteen, I can readily admit that gardening was not the top of my interests. In fact, I was sitting at their wooden dining table ignoring everything but what was coming from my earbuds when a harsh instruction came ringing from the kitchen where my grandmother was scrubbing up after lunch: “Get outside and help your grandfather!” Reluctantly (and I’m sure with an age-appropriate amount of eye-rolling), I went out the back door and asked him how I could help in the garden. Without a word, he handed me a set of gloves and the silver bowl of leftovers from lunch. Then, when I’m sure my confused look had given me away, he took the bowl back in his hands and began tossing its contents on the mounds of earth where the corn, carrots, and collards were growing. “1, 2, 3. Water, food, sun”, he said. And that was the end of the conversation.
This, I eventually learned, was the essence of garden growth. Just three steps. An earthy, dirty, garden-y kind of waltz. One, water. I learned to water the garden before bed, leaving the moisture to soak in overnight so that it wouldn’t scorch away in the day’s sun. Two, food. And no, not the MiracleGro we often sprinkle over squash plants hoping for the same massive results seen in the magazine at the check-out line. My ninety-six-year-old grandfather offered his garden real food. Everything from bacon grease to watermelon rind made its way from that silver scrap bowl into the garden bed, and the crops displayed their bounty because of it. Three, sun. After giving the roots every ounce of nutrients they could absorb, I learned to breathe. Put the tools away. And let the sun do the rest.
None of this is rocket science. All of us, most likely, learned in grade school that plants need water, nutrients, and sunlight to survive. But it was that small lesson put so simply that would eventually inspire a love of gardening in me. Life already necessitates so much. The boss needs the project, the dog needs the vet, the kids need the sneakers, the school needs, the landlord needs, the groceries need, need, need. Maybe because that ever-abundant and growing need, there’s something magical about giving a living being just a little water, a little food, and putting it in a place where the sun can do the rest of the work. It’s a welcome and somehow luxurious respite of responsibility.
This incredible restoring simplicity is why it’s so fun to sink your hands into garden soil as an adult. The discouragement of being dirty as a child at some point gives way to a subtle rebellious excitement when you gather heaping handfuls of earth to press into a root bed. The gentle pulling of weeds, the daily tossing of leftover cucumber skins into the earth for composting, and that mouthwatering “snap” of breaking a zucchini off its vine when it’s ready is almost intoxicating. How luxurious to place a seed in the ground, and then a few months later pick and eat the fruit of your labor with no chemical, no middleman, and no supermarket in sight.
And perhaps one of the best parts of all of it is that it matters little that we (or at least most of us) don’t have 1,000-acre gardens. The earth doesn’t require much space to grow something delicious. Whether we live in a city with a community garden, have a backyard with space for a modest raised bed, or survive in tiny apartments with one sun-facing window and a small pot for tomatoes, it’s the same simple formula — 1, 2, 3. Water, food, sun. Our creativity is the only thing keeping us from the gratification of a garden.
I hope this summer you’re able to experience the joy that comes with growing a garden, no matter how big or small. I’d love to hear your gardening ideas, tips, or hacks. Connect with me on my instagram, @lydiacockrell_.