I haven't blogged in quite a while, but now that we live in Alabama and so far away from so many people we love I wanted to get back into it.
This morning I took on the unglamorous task of doing the first round of thinning carrots in our two-year-old’s garden. The only thing he specifically wanted to include in his spot was carrots for the profound reason that they are orange, which also happens to be his favorite color. Carrot seeds are so tiny it’s hard not to sow them crazy close together no matter how practiced you are. Put a two year old in the mix and his baby carrots are literally growing right on top of each other.
Any time I play in the dirt I know I should wear gloves, but I feel clumsy in them, like I’m trying to garden with bubblewrapped fingers. That obviously won’t do for a delicate task like thinning carrots. Of course, the result of not wearing gloves seems to be a perpetual case of dirty fingernails. The black sliver at the tip of each of my too-stubby-anyways nails makes my hands look like a messy child’s, and perhaps that’s fitting today. Thinning carrots always seems to awaken the little kid in me who can’t help but root for each little seedling, even while the rational adult in me is plotting their demise.
I remember the first time I encountered the principle of thinning. Our dad had torn up the rectangle of lawn behind our swingset, determined that us kids should have the experience of raising some of our own food. Before long each of us girls had been assigned a few rows to tend. I was given custody of two rows of carrots (which I liked to eat) and two rows of radishes (which I didn’t, but felt reassured would grow quickly). I was delighted when only a couple of weeks later a crooked line of leafy green tops gave evidence that my seeds had done something.
I assumed that from that point on my only jobs would be a bit of weeding and maybe some watering. Instead, I was caught off guard when only a week or two later my dad asked me to do something additional. Something unthinkable and barbaric.
He expected me to thin my carrots.
Oh my carrots! They were beautiful, lacy-topped, perfect little seedlings. They had poked their heads out from the dirt so faithfully, stretched their skinny fingers towards the sunshine, and done everything that had been asked of them. And Dad expected me to brutally murder half of them. When Dad removed the first one, discarding it casually to the side, I blanched. The pale little root already looked like a carrot. An embryo carrot. And here it was being left on the lawn to scorch and wither and die.
Explanations were wasted on me. The garden was big, the dirt was plentiful, surely it could support all of my vegetables, not just the ones “chosen” to survive.
Finally Dad relented. I would thin one row of each of my vegetables; the other I could do with as I pleased.
The weeks went by and our garden inevitably shifted more feral, more jungle-like, as the summer progressed, with both vegetables and weeds crowding to fill what had seemed like a gigantic space in the spring.
And there were my carrots.
I can still remember my surprise the day I realized what a difference there was between the two rows. The carrots that had been thinned were large, with wavy green tops, and shapely orange roots. The carrots that hadn’t been were pathetic by comparison. Lost in a thicket of wavy tops, the roots were skinny, stumpy and crooked.
Maybe they would have seemed ok with nothing to compare too. Maybe they would have been delightful for pickled fingerlings or something like that, but what I had wanted were big, classically-beautiful, carrots. And the thinned row had fared better enough to impress even my stubborn child-self.
Much is made of the idea of “having it all.” I think back on who I was as a student, eagerly signing up for every club, committee and cause. It’s good when you’re young to sow crowded furrows of interests, to see which ones take, which ones grow.
But as I’ve aged I’m finally seeing the value of thinning. That gritty mixture of time and energy and emotional well-being that makes up the soil of life seems to stretch out forever in the spring but by mid-season becomes surprisingly finite. It can only support so many carrots.
Some seedlings are scrawny and easier to discard. Others seem to scream potential with every chlorophyll-filled cell in their being, their only fault being that there are just too many of them. Choices. Which demands on my time and energy will I nurture? Which will I place aside so I can invest in the harvest I want most?
So today I stare down at the progress I’ve made on my row of carrots in Matthew’s garden, and it’s hard not to let out a little sigh. Still, rather than dwelling on the pile of limp discards and the broken dirt where they used to stand, I want to shift my focus to the survivors. In their suddenly uncrowded row they already seem to be stretching out, luxuriating in the extra space.
I’m optimistic they will thrive.