Lydia’s Garden

My grandmother would have been baffled by landscape architecture. For South Dakota farmers, the land was a blank sheet waiting to be filled with furrows. The planter’s palette was bi-chromatic: green (corn, soybeans) or brown (oats). The garden was a field writ small, its rows of beans and carrots and sweet corn a geometric stay against chaos.

After her husband died, Lydia turned the farm over to her son and moved to town. Although she gave up the fields that had sustained her for six decades, her house in Emery, like most there, had a garden in back. And like those, some tended by transplanted farmers such as herself, her garden was mainly vegetables, supplemented by three apple trees and some strawberries and rhubarb.

But Lydia’s garden also had flowers: petunias, marigolds, snapdragons, zinnias. And hollyhocks. Many yards in Emery had hollyhocks growing somewhere. I’ve tried my hand at them but have failed utterly. Other urban gardeners, perhaps seeking to bolster me, have said they’re hard to grow. Perhaps. Or it may be that the hollyhock is at heart a country flower and shrinks from city life.

My grandmother’s garden bridged two worlds. Most gardens are either vegetables or flowers, either utilitarian or aesthetic. You might grow both, but not usually in the same plot. By combining the two, Lydia Jucht made a statement: This world is for surviving, for wresting from the earth one’s daily bread. But not just that. This world is also for beauty, for cultivating that which does nothing but delight.

Her German Baptist heritage taught my grandmother all she needed to know about utility, taught her that one who does not work shall not eat, taught her to separate the wheat from the tares. But somewhere along the way she learned another lesson, learned that there is a time to hoe vegetables and a time to look at flowers, and they may be the same time.

The biblical drama begins in a garden and ends in a city. I’m not sure that represents progress. One can only hope that the New Jerusalem will have room for gardens and that in those gardens there will be room for both beans and hollyhocks

Dave Healy is a lifelong resident of St. Paul, where he lives with his wife, Nancy, an educational consultant. He’s the editor of the Park Bugle, a community newspaper serving two St. Paul neighborhoods as well as Falcon Heights and Lauderdale.