In the Garden: Thinning

by Maria Theresa Maggi on May 6, 2013

In the Garden

We all love the blossoms of Spring. What we tend to forget about is the long latency period required to produce the blossoms we love so much. Sometimes even leafing out again is a kind of miracle.

Like this grapevine. I started it from the top branch of one my neighbor Keith had grown for years. First year, it started to leaf out way too late in the season. Then there was an early frost. Second Spring, nothing. I thought I would have to pull it. Then the third Spring (last Spring) this:


So I never know, even when I think I know. Maybe this will be the year it decides to bloom. Or fruit. But that may take another season or two. I’ll just have to water it, wait, and see. Last year I started to pull one out next to it that seemed to be doing nothing, only to find it was growing roots. I put it back in and prayed for more patience.

This post is a celebration of the blossoming of my abilities in the garden over the last 3 years. If you read closely you will notice that at the root of my ability to “blossom” are the turns of three seasons I stayed with eating low fat and plant-based, willing to weather the slow changes that burst into the beautiful blossoming I now enjoy on so many levels.  It’s also worth noting it took two seasons of low fat plant-based eating prior to these three to even begin to see the first significant improvements I describe below from 2010. So five seasons altogether. It reminds me of what someone on the Swank board wrote to me the first year I went plant-based, which was 2008. After grudgingly admitting I seemed to be doing fine without the fish and chicken she said something like “It will be interesting to see where you are 5 years from now.” At the time, 5 years seemed very far off. It turns out that patience I allowed myself, that waiting in the seeming emptiness before a blossom appears and opens, is perhaps an even more stunning grace than the blossom itself.

July 28, 2010


Little Victory: I am thinning again this summer. Able to. Turnips, lettuce, carrots even.

Epiphany: I thin better when I scatter the seed rather than plant it in a straight line. It must be the  way I see things. And maybe the initial playfulness of it. Tracking anything in a line is terribly hard and also confining for me. I prefer  journals with no lines. And any list I make will have the same thing on it somewhere “down the line,” as the “line” seems to encourage forgetting where I’m going, where I’ve been. The way “around” this, in the years of this illness is to either think in a circle, or go for the “whole” and let the pieces of it emerge as they will, like the Cheshire Cat, emerging slowly into appearance.

So this Spring the playfulness won out over “this is the way everyone says to do it.”  I scattered a fistful of carrot seeds at the end of one bed where I could sit easily to dig them up, should I be lucky enough to get some. Then radishes. Then turnips, first time. Then for the rest of it, feeling whimsical, I “mixed.” A handful of cimmaron romaine. The rest of some red cabbage seeds. A little bit of leftover basil. Some beet seeds. On the outside of that, a very short row of carrots (just in case). And on the other outside, a very short row of green onion. Perhaps I was encouraged on in this whimsy by the fact that in the next bed I had successfully scattered Red Russian Kale seed, and it was happily growing in force in about half the bed. At the other end red mustard, same way. And in the middle of it a handful of tatsoi. The only thing that didn’t do well was the lacinato kale I tried to plant in a line. I don’t plant my squashes in a line either, I plant them in a mound, circular style. So why not try this? Besides, I already had a row of green gem romaine (unthinned) growing next to the sugar snap peas starting along the fence. The wire fence is the only “line” I like growing along, maybe because it is transparent and I can reach through it easily. So it really has three dimensions, and is not a line. Spurred on by my “science experiment”—my name for when I think, “what if I did this instead of that?”–I did the same thing next to the broccoli with some curly kale seed. Come to think of it the broccolis are not planted in a line, either,  Not enough room for that, so I alternate them front, middle back, in a sort of diamond pattern.

The curly kale starts were the first to prompt me to thin out this pattern one cool evening, as I was watering, and not taxed with the heat or the dust. I sat down and just started sort of brushing through with my hand to see where they were thickest. It’s relaxing this way. Perhaps it works so well because it’s like looking through a pattern of hair growing, and  sets off some ancient grooming urge. Could be. I also decided I would save all these little ones and throw them in a freezer bag—another “science experiment” I’d been curious to try out, since I’d read on the 365 Days of Kale blog that you could do this with kale without blanching it and it kept fine that way. This helped my other block to thinning, which is that I hate to throw out the new little starts. They seem so triumphant and miraculous, even in sprouting at all. I want to treasure them. So I did.

I am writing first here about the mental and emotional difficulties with thinning, which often seem to be “frozen” in place by the difficulties of transition created in the nervous system by the MS. But there are also the physical difficulties. The bending over. The being on my knees. If I am lucky enough to be able to be on my knees, I am still bending over. The bending over when I am Indian style. The repetiton of motion for that lower back is a killer. The getting up from bending over is another hazard since I am subject to vertigo or vassal vegal syncope. The intricacy of eye-hand coordination required. Some years, many years, at the outset I have had to give up, because I am pawing at them, but have no way of actually grabbing the one I think I might be trying to get and pulling it out successfully.

So I would say maybe the first Little Victory coming from the plant based eating is the calming of inflammatory processes that freeze the mind and emotions of the “stuck” place of difficulty or impossibility, thus freeing me up to see different options, often whimsical, as in this case, that provide a new entry point that is easier or more doable. The second wave of victoriousness comes when my physical  body is able to follow suit with the emotional and mental ones, and actually CAN do some bending, some selecting, before the threshold of fatigue, weakness or pain hits critical mass. Before I cross that threshold I discover that “automatic” zone again. I find myself doing something I haven’t been able to do in a long, long time, even if only for a few minutes. That’s when I know I am healing, and it’s building on itself, slowly and surely, over time. That beautiful old tortoise making its way on the hot, dusty road. Except there isn’t a finish line. it’s more like a finish “spread”—in all directions and all dimensions.

. . . . .

Then I found, on the exact same day a year later, that I had written this:

July 28, 2011

Like Tree Rings

This evening I was cutting back a large motherwort plant that  volunteered last year right next to where the back gate opens. It’s about to go to seed and starting to be a hazard to getting in and out of the gate. As I bent over to clip, I noticed with surprise my range of comfortable bending over was several inches “deeper” than last year. How did I know? The stalks I had cut from last year were still there. And I was cutting a good 5-6 inches below them. It really came together for me all at once to see I had just naturally bent lower to do the job. And that the old stalks were like a marker of where I was last year. Wow. (I keep saying that to myself.)

I was so incredulous about this that I went in and got the measuring tape for verification.  The previous year I wouldn’t have known how deep or shallow my bend was, since it was just so all encompassing and important that I could bend more than once to do anything at all in the garden.

. . . . .

Winter, 2011

I was able to do another  kind of “ literary thinning”  I value very much. I had come across a much earlier journal entry about my reluctance to thin new starts in the garden and was able to work it into a poem I thought good enough to send out to a literary journal I admire called Pilgrimage that emphasizes “story, spirit, witness, place.”

Here is the poem:

My Garden and Bob Land’s Desk

for all my former 39A PASS students

My salad garden grows like my memory
of Bob Land’s desk in Humanities Hall— a bushy maze-mess.
Like Bob did, I know where (almost) everything is.
My “system” is simple counter-intuition: cram things
in too close and root for every seed that sprouts.
Be wary of thinning. And root for seeds that volunteer,
that delight with their surprise appearance,
be seduced by them, as (perhaps) Michael Pollan would say.
Like when Elias Mendoza from the Sioux reservation
would show up, announcing himself loudly as he flounced
into a seat in the writing lab twenty minutes late, his journal
full of Bob Marley and his smiles igniting girl giggles.
Go for a jungle effect, which I really did not go for at all,
and neither did Bob. But he knew how to
stand next to a student and compel him or her to grow
just by the nature of proximity.  In my garden, the default jungle arises
not from history or geography but from a combination of worrying
not enough seeds will sprout or mature,
and being so excited by the sight of them when they do
that I don’t have the heart to thin.
Because one might grow like Gloria Vasquez,
beaten out of her gang to wash up in university,
major in Criminal Justice, minor in Psychology,
bend back the sharp blade of statistical odds honed
to slash her chances,  and graduate to go inspire other kids.
Thinning can’t be imposed too soon :
it needs to emerge, the hidden design in the apparent stack-and-clump,
the splendor waiting to be recognized.

When I see the smooth glowing pages of new green gem romaine,
or their dark matte Cimarron sisters, I am happy to enjoy them
baby size, leaf by leaf, for my salads,
as they keep on growing one leaf at a time through most of the season,
no early bolting, and giving bites of pure life and vitamins
a little at a time.  Or maybe I will thin around one and let it grow
most of a whole head,  only because it seems to really want to.
Not an American model. On that Victory Garden episode
I saw the demonstration of an “Asian style” green plot:
It was pretty much just like mine, letting things grow close,
cutting leaves or whole plants as needed, a gestalt born out of
proximity and the occasional riot.  Great for baby greens.
Each leaf essential, a jewel, like those students from Cambodia,
from Korea, from Viet Nam, filling up desks in the 80s—
quiet, except to one another, removed from ancient uprooted groves,
their sorrows and betrayals unknown to us,
the pain hidden in their profuse dispersal, their silence.
Until Soon Il Kim told me he chose Thomas for his America name
because it means twin : he has to be two people, one traditional, one not.
He called me “teacher” with such reverence it humbled me to silence.
In years to come I might mix all my seeds with sand
and scatter them over their new bed. To hell with lines, and
who’s first and last, how to beat the challenges of assimilation.
Better to let the sprouts emerge like stars as the sun leaves the sky,
glowing here, then there, then here, unlocking
their brilliant secrets from the soft clay soil.

. . . . .


January 2012

I received an e-mail from Maria Melendez, the editor of Pilgrimage telling me my poem was accepted for publication in the Spring Issue of 2012.

. . . . .


Spring, Summer and  Fall 2012

So many things were different for me in the garden and the yard in 2012 that I don’t know where to start. First of all, I had Clark’s help with some very big jobs.  The result of that was that I could do much of the maintaining and thinning myself. I bent over so many times in one period of being out in the yard that I gave up counting. I was able to work in the sun. I was able to purchase and use a grass trimmer that made trimming around the edges of things possible without waiting for someone to come and use the weed wacker. It’s a wonderful little device:


Some of the time using it I bent over, and some of the time I scooted around on my butt or my knees. I did it all myself.

I mowed the lawn, front and back, myself all season,  with my push mower, except for the first two times when rain had been heavy and it was exceptionally thick.

After my veggies were started, I decided they’d do better with a soaker hose. I walked to Tri-State with Romeo on some of the trips (1 mile round trip) I made there to get the right stuff to do that and to learn how to connect it to my regular hose. I laid the soaker hose, weaving it through established plants and wire fence for almost 50 feet. Myself. And later in the season when it was time to dig up the shallots and they needed to dry out,  I pulled up the hose around them and rerouted it to a spot where I moved volunteer and late start tomatoes. Myself. And when it got down in the thirties at night in the last two weeks and there were no more tomatoes growing outside, I unwound it from the overgrown parsley and through the wire fence and up out of the kale and put it away. Myself. I picked all my pears myself, except for a few. I kept up the weeding in the star garden, the flower bed outside the back door and the vegetable garden, after Clark had done his wonderful restoration work.

star garden, newly restored, Spring 2012

star garden, newly restored, Spring 2012

So while in 2010 I was celebrating being able to bend over at all, and remembering the times I would get down and not know how in the world I would get up, so that even once was too much, in 2011 I was astonished to realize that without thinking about it I had gained a whole half a foot in how deep I could bend over and do something while bent over, like clip. In 2012 it just became so commonplace that I had to admit to myself I could now do it routinely, even if I did tire or seize up after a while, or become slightly dizzy if I persisted when it was hot outside. But even so, there were many days when I did fine doing this kind of “light” gardening for 40 minutes or more, just enjoying being out there. Moving around in this way has ceased to become instantly perilous.  I now can do it fine for a while without the acute pain and the instability that used to accompany even one attempt. Sure, I still feel it. But not like I used to. Isn’t this the opposite of how they say it’s supposed to go as you get older? The years are accumulating, but time is somehow also marching backward. Or bringing me to a place I may never have been before. Older, once in a while wiser, but also feeling younger than I ever have felt, perhaps even at 25. If that isn’t a miracle, I don’t know what is.


glorious greens

glorious greens

Maria (moonwatcher)


Leave a Comment

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Silvia May 7, 2013 at 8:51 am

I really have to say how much I appreciate this post!
I am really thankful that you let us participate on your journey.
And I really wish I could express myself better but as English is not my mothertongue…
Thanks so much!


2 moonwatcher May 7, 2013 at 9:01 am

Dear Silvia, your comment is perfect. I am so glad you enjoyed this post, it is a subject very dear to my heart. Thank YOU!!



3 Marge Evans May 8, 2013 at 6:11 pm

first off your poem was beautiful.I loved all the words. Your blog is keeping me honest, I am not anywhere, that I need to be on my journey of life. All too often I get angry about trivial stuff. You have made me more aware. Thank you and thank Susan, please keep writing.


4 moonwatcher May 8, 2013 at 9:53 pm

Thank YOU, Marge. I appreciate your faithful, thoughtful reading. It means a lot to me to know you loved the poem, too.



5 Kiwi Fan May 8, 2013 at 6:49 pm

Just a reminder, dear Maria, of how much I enjoy, look forward to and thank you for your special words! I’m glad you get so much pleasure from your garden. I love your star garden and your idea of ‘marching backwards’ in time yet forwards in health and healing. Your stories of slow healing give me much hope! Blessings to you!


6 moonwatcher May 8, 2013 at 9:56 pm

Hi Kiwi Fan! I always smile to see that you’ve left a comment. Thank you so much!! Glad to know you love the star garden and my ideas about time. Blessings back!!


7 Michele May 9, 2013 at 6:06 am

Amazing story of transformation, likened to the slow steady progress in nature. It is not just what you say but the way you weave words to create the story of your life. Thanks you so much. Michele


8 moonwatcher May 9, 2013 at 9:09 am

Hi Michele, I like the way you said that I am likening my transformation to the slow steady progress in nature. It felt good to read that understanding from you. I am lucky to have such astute readers. Thank you!!


Previous post:

Next post: