Sarah, the 3-Year Old Gardener

Jim Long

Sarah’s Garden
A year ago I was just out of the hospital after receiving a new kidney. It was February, the time when I traditionally plant potatoes, peas, onions, poppies and cilantro. Out of the hospital but not yet able to travel, I was staying with my cousins, Bill and Laveta, in Kansas City.
My room looked out upon their back yard and over into their neighbors’ yard. The winter was mild and I was feeling the need to garden again.
One day I noticed a bit of earth that had been dug up in the neighbors’ back yard. This was not the red clay, rocky soil of my Ozarks, but the black, rich soil of the area where the Santa Fe and Oregon Trails once commenced.
I mentioned the digging to my cousins, saying the neighbor must be anxious for the garden season to begin.
“Oh, no,” Bill said. “That’s Sarah, our neighbor’s granddaughter. She goes outside and digs every time they let her out to play.”
When I inquired about Sarah age, I was completely unprepared for Bill’s answer.
“She’s just three,” he said.
I learned Sarah loves to dig in the earth. Not just a little dab here and a jab there, like you would expect a three year old to do. This was a systematic turning over of the soil, from one corner, extending out across the bed. She had borrowed her grandfather’s hand trowel, and every day, her favorite pastime was to dig and pretend she was planting flowers.
As I healed, Bill drove me back and forth, so I could go home for brief periods, between doctor’s appointments. I began to look forward to seeing Sarah’s progress. The first thing I would do after settling in, was to look out the window to check on Sarah’s project.
Eventually, Sarah had shallowly tilled an area about three feet wide and eight feet long. The spot looked, from my vantage point at least, like it was ready to plant.
Bill and Laveta told me the grandparents weren’t always pleased Sarah got so dirty each day. They wished she didn’t dig in the ground so much. But they also said she pretended to scatter imaginary seed, then she would carry water in her little play bucket and water them. Sarah knew already, what it took to make a garden grow.
I expressed my hope the grandparents would buy her real seed and give her the opportunity to garden. I thought back to my own first garden, at age five, and how grateful I remain, to my parents for letting me make all the mistakes a five year old can make in a garden.
I remembered how I got to choose the seed, and to plant them in my own little space. I thought back to how I planted everything too closely, in order to plant everything I’d wanted to grow. I recalled how the weeds grew and how hot and miserable it was using my toy hoe in July. But I also relived in my memory how my mother had prominently displayed every radish, every sprig of dill, every little pea or mint leaf I had grown that first year.
After my last appointment at the hospital in early May, I looked out my cousins’ window to check on Sarah’s garden. It was completely tilled, and fenced with four feet high chicken wire. I asked Bill if Sarah had gotten to plant her garden. He said he didn’t think so. The grandfather had fenced the garden to plant tomatoes so Sarah’s play garden had been replaced.
I felt bad for Sarah. I wanted to take her seed packets and tell her to dig up another patch. I wanted to encourage her to not give up gardening, but instead, to find another place to plant. I hoped Sarah’s grandparents let her help plant the tomatoes and would encourage her budding love for gardening.
Watching Sarah’s determination, week after week in cold weather, seeing her determined progress, was inspirational for me. If a three year old could garden, given her limitations, surely I could do no less. And as spring came and I healed, I thought of Sarah many times as I began to garden again.