This article is a re-issue in blog form of something I wrote several years ago; I brought it
out here as my daughter is now preparing to leave for college…

I was first aware of the beginning of the season’s close when I saw the change in
the late afternoon sunlight as it shone through the maple tree by the front sidewalk. All
summer the sun set high enough to pass directly over the tree, leaving only a shadow in a
circle or ellipses on the lawn. Now the direction of the sun’s path has dropped enough to
back-light the tree, the sparkle of refraction twinkling through the leaves as I prepare my
evening meal. As the autumn progresses, this most golden yellow foliage will be a
spotlight of color. Perhaps I notice the change more this year than previous years because
my son Blake left home for college a few weeks ago.
Suddenly the house is very quiet. Suddenly there is a full refrigerator that stays
that way for days. Suddenly I have many evenings to do anything I might like. A lot of
people tell me I should be thrilled to have reached this point in my parenting where both
my son and I are on our way to new and more independent lives. But it’s weird—and I
wasn’t prepared.

I draw the analogy like this: When I set about my garden plans in the spring, I’m
all excited about the new varieties of annuals to try for the season—flowers, veggies,
herbs, the whole of it. All winter I look outside into the grey spaces and dream about
how I’ll move this plant or that, where I’ll put the new things, consult my record book
about what did well and what didn’t; I’ll think about where there are holes in the design
and what will be the remedy. I develop the whole scene psychically, picturing it in my
oh-so colorful gardener’s imagination. As soon as the weather is even sort of warm
enough to work outside I’m off like a shot to clean up and get anything done that can be
done.

So too, when one decides to have a child. A parent does all kinds of planning,
reading and preparation. A parent buys a whole pile of stuff to take care of the new little
person. Spends hours and hours and hours cultivating, nurturing. A parent sees where
the child’s strengths lie and support them with the strongest stakes in the shed. A parent
sits alongside a fevered forehead and applies cool wet things to ease the heat; a parent
follows expert instruction to kill or ward off diseases and germs. But for all that, a parent
or gardener never knows for sure how things will turn out—he just has to see how
everything develops and go from there. Despite the best efforts there are problems: most
get solved like the general growing pains of parents, children, plants in response to their
environment; Others just have to be accepted: broken bones that change the course of a
life or a plant that just struggles with disease and pest, and has to be removed for the
health of the garden.

No book ever tells a parent, though, how he will feel when this happens, about
the empty space that springs up between the ribs and throat. Then I, the gardener and the
parent, arrive at harvest time, at college. The fruits of the vine are collected and my
young man has gone off to make his way in the world.

I will always be a gardener even if I’m less a parent now, maybe more with the extra time I have, and spring will still be there next year, the freshman year will end, and my fridge will be empty again instead of my nest.

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