Poems & Essays

27 Oct

The Secret Garden

General/Column 2 Responses

Weeds circle the rim of the large pot. Inside, protected by their circle, rests a bed of leaves, pine needles and tufts of moss. A single stem pokes through this forgotten fortress. At the opposite end of the pool deck, a matching pot stands stoic. Small, cracked pots gather in one corner of the deck like abandoned ships pushed to harbor by unforgiving currents. What had once bloomed yellow, pink and purple now spills green and brown—even the pool water.

We’ve been gone for four years.

The year we moved in, I set modest gardening goals. While I envisioned expansive flower beds, I had no clue how to achieve the picture in my head. I took my cues from the previous owner, tending to the pots she had left, replacing a few of the ornate concrete vessels with ceramic and wooden ones. I spent an entire Saturday in May stocking up on supplies—gloves, soil, tools and browsing flowers. On Sunday, I dove in, paying little attention to details like annuals vs. perennials; sun vs. shade; wet vs. dry soil. I picked flowers I thought were pretty. To my surprise, I found gardening satisfying. There seemed to be some greater, intangible purpose in nurturing petals, leaves and soil. Equally surprising was the luck I had that first year.

In the years that followed, I fussed over impatiens that stuck out of dirt like straws in a desert, pansies that petered out, daisies that fell ill, geraniums that drowned. These less successful gardening years coincided with the births of babies and needy toddler years. My plants wilted; my children bloomed.

Then we moved abroad. Our house in Connecticut lay fallow while we adventured in Asia.

When we first moved to Shanghai, my oldest boy was two, his brother, five months. I was convinced the two year old needed some kind of socialization. He spent all his time with me and his brother, and I worried the cycle of feeding, burping and sleeping so vital to his brother, was stunting his growth. So, I found a toddler art class. We taxied through rush hour traffic across town. He sat, sullen and quiet, hands crossed. The teacher brought over paper, a cup of water and paint.. She tried coaxing in Mandarin, a string of sounds that lulled his brother to sleep in my arms. I tried coaxing in English.

“No! I do not want to paint.” It wasn’t going well. But onward I pushed.

“Just try it.”


“It will be fun.”


“Look, that boy is making a sun.”

“No.” The teacher asked him to wear a smock. He threw a tantrum like none I’d ever seen my mild-mannered boy do. The baby woke up. I panicked. We didn’t have any friends. We needed this class. The teacher politely suggested we go home and try again the following week.

The next week, despite his protests at home, I pushed him in the taxi. Pushed him into the art room. Pushed him into the smock and pushed him into what was quickly becoming a routine tantrum. I pushed until he wilted.

Five years later, those watercolor weeks are so clear to me now. With distance I can see the subtle distinctions that shaded our unique needs. I needed socialization. My son needed time to adjust to a move abroad and a relatively new baby.

Now, surveying the battlefield, I start by throwing away the pots that are damaged beyond repair. Some are chipped; some are cracked; some are caked in muck. I hose them off and find ways to hide those with smaller cracks or chips. I tell my kids we’ll fill just a few pots to start.

Browsing Home Depot, I ask my seven year old to look for plants labeled “easy to grow.”

We dump all the old soil into our wheelbarrow and combine it with new “moisture control” soil. We refill our sturdy pots with refreshed soil. My five year old digs holes, while his brother places the new flowers in them. I fill in with more dirt.

Then we wait. We wait for the sun to warm and the rain to quench and the worms to nourish and the roots to take root. We wait for the school year to finish, teeth to fall out, and the evenings to lengthen. We wait for summer to start and the flowers to bloom.

In the four years we’ve been away, our trees have grown, our shrubs have expanded and weeds have exploded. They grew in the years we lived in the house, of course, but I hadn’t bothered to notice. Now, I watch my kids run around the deck where they used to crawl. I’ve watched them grow too, but there is a four year space between the pencil markings that measure their heights on their bedroom walls. They are delighted by the magic of their own bodies but I see the absence as a poignant reminder of the impossible feat of holding on to time that was never mine to keep. Here, in the bright sunshine, there are only larger fleeting shadows to mark the movement of time.

While away, our yard has also become home to a veritable animal kingdom. During the day, we spy bunnies, chipmunks and a family of well fed groundhogs. I Google “spices and herbs that deter rodents.” I move pots from the ground to an old table, from the sun to the shade, hoping I’ll find the place they will flourish. I dote over my fledgling plants, pulling weeds and deterring slugs.

My kids’ interest in the plants is peaking. They like sprinkling cayenne pepper and watering, but as I get more concerned for my garden’s wellbeing, I am becoming more particular about when and how they should be watered.

There’s a delicate simplicity to gardening.

As a toddler, my son’s signature look was long, wispy hair. It hung uneven over his eyes, ears and neck. By the time he was 18 months, I could no longer deny it was time for a haircut.

We sat in a small, mirrored barber shop and waited for a man caped in black to finish. My son clung to my neck. He ignored the woman who tried to engage him. When the barber called us over, I carried my boy who had buried his head under mine and told the barber to keep it long but get it out of his face. I tried to sit my son in the chair, but he wouldn’t uncurl from my body. The barber said he could sit on my lap. “Okay,” I cheered, “we’re going to sit together! This will be fun!”

Fun it was not. My son screamed as if the barber were jamming the shears directly into his skull. I could have asked the barber to stop. We could have left, but we didn’t. I was frustrated but determined. My son wailed; my body clenched; the barber hurried. We never went back.

The three Japanese maples that stand outside our pool fence hunch over, shading the far pool deck. I peek into the large pots that sit under the sagging branches. The forgotten fortress. The stem I noticed a couple of weeks ago has grown bright with teardrop leaves. I start to pull a few weeds. My sons call, “can we go swimming now?” Their interest in gardening has been eclipsed by aquatics

“Just let me move this over to the sun.” I push the hair from my face with my gloved hand.

While they swim, I tend to my purple Calibrachoa that is struggling. I try pruning the browning leaves. I pull the weeds I can see, I loosen the topsoil as Google has instructed. I feel like a groomer with an impossible task.

My boys splash and squeal the kinds of squeals that only a summer afternoon can cultivate.

“Your son has been identified as needing some extra support with reading. He’ll be pulled out of class to have time with our reading specialist.” The note from school went on to explain this “early intervention” would continue until he meets grade level expectations.

I’m a teacher. I know about the success rates of early interventions. I know kids learn at all different rates. I purposely chose a kindergarten that did not teach reading. Yet, reading the note made my stomach tense. I knew what the research said about other children, but it felt irrelevant to my own child.

Still, I worried. My inner dialogue settled in the valley between calm and panic. He can barely sound out simple three letter words. He has all the basics, it will come together. He still doesn’t hold a pen right. The writing will come. Exhausted from a full day of school, I pulled out the sight words, he pushed away tears. I pushed him to write; he pulled into himself.

Then, I stopped. I stopped talking about reading and writing and phonics. I tried not to pay attention when he was using his reading app but couldn’t help silently cheering when he seemed to be doing well. I moved the sight words out of sight, and he began reading signs at the store. As we snuggled in bed, I didn’t ask if he wanted to read, I simply opened the books and started the story. One night he told me I missed a word.

Within a few months, he was no longer getting pulled out of class. I felt a little steadier.

There is a delicate simplicity to mothering.

I survey my garden. It looks like it’s been crying. I’m unable to hose off the stains of neglect. I cannot tame what will be wild.

I study the weeds that mingle among the struggling flowers—uninvited guests who’ve proven to be affable. With little help from Google, I’ve narrowed my problems down to all, none, or some of the following: overwatering, underwatering, not enough sun, too much sun, not enough drainage, root rot or disease. I’m frustrated but determined.

As I make my way around my garden, I spot the big pots in back. There, in the forgotten fortress, it sticks out like a spotlight illuminating the secret I already know. The stem that had grown from a sprout to a leafy stalk is now topped by a gift tucked inside a shell of pink petals, waiting to unfold.



Kathleen Siddell is a teacher, writer and struggling gardener. She, her husband and two boys are back in Connecticut after spending time in Asia. You can find her drowning in the Twitterverse @kathleensiddell.

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Would you like to join the discussion? Feel free to contribute!

  1. Annie

    October 27, 2017 at 3:14 pm

    Nicely done, Kathleen!

  2. Daniel

    September 3, 2020 at 9:59 am

    Nice to see your secret garden. I also looking to care for my backyard.


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