Trampled plants and other (seemingly) hopeless things

Winters here aren’t marked by blankets of snow. The gardens never have to be put to bed, but are converted to take advantage of the cool rainy season that allows us to grow the leafy greens, broccoli, garlic, and carrots that tend to wither under our summer sun.

Even so, I spend that season dreaming of bumper crops of tomatoes, zucchini and watermelons. I fill the seed catalog with thick black circles and dog-eared pages, as I once marked up toy catalogs in a childhood of Decembers. I long for heirloom pumpkins and rainbow-jeweled cobs of corn.

In the end, I manage to winnow my list down to a small order for special varieties. The staples of our garden—the tomatoes, the sweet peppers, the squash—will come from a small family farm just ten minutes away. They start their seedlings early, protected in a small greenhouse, and their plants are consistently robust, productive, and selected for their adaption to the local climate.

And so this spring, I observed our tradition vernal tradition with some alterations. Just as in previous years, I took my daughter along to visit the farm and select our seedlings. Unlike previous years, our visit was scheduled to prevent it from overlapping with other customers. We wore masks and maintained distance from our farmer friends. The pandemic was still new to us, but they were as generous as ever, digging up some of their native purple aster to send home for our yard, promising a colorful autumn.

We prepared the garden beds and I planted each seedling, reveling in the promise of its fruit.

A week passed by and I found my wife, Amy, putting in our tomato cages. As she drove one in, I saw that she was stepping directly on a sweet pepper seedling. It was badly mangled, lying on its side connected to the rootstock by a paper-thin strip of green.

My immediate action was irritable, lacking the graciousness warranted by an accident. Amy felt horrible and—grasping at straws—suggested that maybe the plant wasn’t a goner.

I looked at the pathetic seedling, horizontal on the ground, hopeless and without a future. Recalibrating my emotional response, I said that it was beyond help but that it was ok. It was just a plant and I overreacted.

Amy, however, did not accept my assessment. After a few minutes on her phone, she shared the findings from her research: A seedling whose stem has not been completely severed can sometimes be rehabilitated with a cast made of dampened toilet paper. Amy applied the makeshift bandage and provided a stick for a splint.

As the days went by, I was surprised to see that the leaves did not wither. In fact, they began to grow and the plant persisted, robust as its uninjured sibling. In this way, I learned that simple tools—a stick and some damp toilet paper—could save a badly injured plant.

This has left me wondering what other hopeless things I have wrongly counted out as lost causes, unaware that simple acts of care and repair could have nurtured them to wholeness. I find myself compelled to live with more hope, training my eyes to look for the possibility of healing.

SAM GREENLEE and his family make their home in the Oak Park neighborhood of Sacramento, CA, in the Sacramento River Watershed. He enjoys spending his free time with his wife and two young children, and he works as a community organizer.

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