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I come to the garden

His name is Dave, and most summer mornings, from dawn until 9 a.m., you can find him in shorts and black knee-high rubber boots digging and fertilizing and pruning and weeding, drawing magic and sustenance from the dirt. I think of him as one of the ushers of the congregation of the community garden.

He knows that we are new, and clueless. When I come early one morning to water, he greets me with a smile, opens the door of the shed and fetches from the cab of his old pick-up the liturgy of this place: a green booklet titled “Home Vegetable Gardening in Kentucky.”

“Study up,” Dave says. “In a month, there’ll be a test.”

This spring, to our surprise, my husband got an email that we were being offered a spot in a community garden about 10 minutes from our house. We’d tried once before, in a too-big plot too far across town, and it did not go well. Our backyard is guarded by two huge maple trees that throw extravagant shade — we’ve tried and failed growing tomatoes in the ground, in drywall buckets moved strategically around the deck to catch the sun, hanging upside down from the swingset.

We’d been told it would take years to work our way off the waiting list for a community garden spot nearby, but this spring we got lucky — although too late to start plants from seeds. But we’ve learned there’s grace and generosity in this communion. At the garden, people share easily: tools, expertise, seeds, encouragement, stories of bumper crops and lessons learned through failure.

This place has space for all sorts: for newbies like us; hipster gardeners; mother-daughter teams; an immigrant physician whose plots are meticulous; and a trio of sisters, short on formal education but with a collective doctorate in horticulture.

Each plot is different — some pristine, some with trellises, some haphazard. One has the gift of broccoli and okra, another raspberries and flowers. It’s like the fruit of the spirit in real life.

And there’s no pretending. You are what you are. You know what you know (or don’t). You do the work, or you slack off and the weeds take over. Sometimes you do your best, and then comes the freeze or the flood or the rabbits. The garden – at least our plot – is a daily lesson in imperfection. We screw up, but we’re always welcome.

When my husband and I stood hovering over our plot, uncertain whether the newly-emerging plants in a particular row were vegetables or weeds, the physician just shook his head. Weeds, he said. Every one. But that, he said, pointing to a straggler at the very end of the row. That is kale.

I love this new season, where miracles sprout from the earth, where hope and cabbage abound, where you can make mistakes and still keep digging. Last night we feasted on salad featuring our own soft green lettuce. We have not yet killed all the tomatoes.

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