Zen and the art of backyard gardening

“Why did I fight with her?” my dad asked Dougal. Dougal wagged his tail. “I know. I know. I am stubborn. Don’t judge me.” Dougal licked his face in response. He didn’t judge. Or maybe he did and his judgment was most accepting. Mom had stormed out of the house and dad was comforting his yellow retriever instead. My dad always found it easier to express his emotions to his dogs than any human.

Growing up, my sisters and I were jealous of our dogs. More than once when dad was not around we’d pretend interrogate them. “What did he tell you today, Dougie? Not talking, eh? Let’s see if you like solitary for half a day. And you, Pepper? Your eyes are a dead giveaway. He told you I am not getting the bike I want for my birthday, didn’t he?”


I remember this as I prune leaves off my bell pepper plants. I have taken my dad’s emotional stuntedness and raised it. I confide in plants instead of pets. Maybe my children have taken it a step further and relate to inanimate objects.

I can see the bell peppers are rotting while anthracnose is spreading. I say sorry to the bell peppers for not treating them sooner. I say sorry to the bush beans that have overgrown. They should have been harvested a week back. I say sorry to the zucchini that I let beetles thrive on. I am sorry to all the residents of my backyard garden. I was so wrapped up in my own life that I let them suffer.  That is selfish of me.

Besides, I need them as much as they need me. As I add mulch to the soil I realize mortgages and teen pregnancies have slipped to the back of my mind . I am relaxed.


Mom was indifferent to the dogs. Raising five kids had sapped her energy. And Dougal was such a notorious pup there was no way she could be drawn into helping dad or us kids in our struggles to keep him under control. She always had a ‘I told you this was a bad idea’ look whenever Dougal committed his latest infraction. The flip side was that she would have done a much better job at disciplining Dougal. Dad’s laissez faire approach was not helping. Fewer guests started showing up when they realized they would have no protection from a playful dog jumping them and pinning them to a corner. Fewer home decorations got purchased because if it could break it would break.

I have no idea what madness possessed my dad to buy a second dog but he was a sucker for pet shelter ads. One of the little mercies in life was that Pepper was a quiet terrier-beagle mutt.  Pepper was so quiet, he seemed apologetic for making an appearance in what was obviously Dougal’s show.

In my teens I discovered how to keep Dougal quiet. I would play my guitar and Dougal would sit attentively in front of me. It was like magic. He seemed to have a particular fondness of Pink Floyd. I am quite certain I spent more hours playing my guitar because of Dougal’s ‘supervision’ than I would have otherwise.


It was when I was in college and staying with one of my sisters that I first started gardening. My first day there I played my guitar and my sister promptly banished me to the backyard so she could focus on whatever it was she was doing working from home. After Wish you were here I had to take a break. Some songs have so much memory associated with them they overwhelm me emotionally. As I kept thinking of Dougal I absently watered the saplings my sister had planted.

I watered the plants every day since then. When they started bearing fruit my sister remarked I was doing a splendid job.

“It’s my music that’s making them grow,” I said.

“As long as you don’t sing,” she said, “That might just make them wilt and die.”

“Very funny. Have no fear, sis. I have taught the tomato vines to sing. And when the eggplants join in it’s quite a cacophony.”

She shook her head and sighed. “You need to start dating!”


I had recently got my driver’s license when Dougal was diagnosed with laryngeal paralysis. He always panted heavily so we didn’t notice he had a serious problem until too late. Added to his bad hips and hypothyroidism, we decided the best course of action would be to put him down. I remember driving my dad back home from the pet hospital. I had never seen him so distraught before.

Later that evening he and I were sitting in the backyard when he opened a can of beer and passed it to me. He took a large sip from his own can.

“Son, do you know what’s happiness?” he asked. I thought he was going to talk about Dougal. He hadn’t spoken a word about him since we left the hospital. “This moment here and now with you.”

I was thrilled enough to be sharing beer with my dad but a realization struck me then. I had taken the place of Dougal.

“Dad?” I asked, “How are you always calm?” I had almost never seen him get angry.

“Like everything else. Takes a lot of hard work.”

There it was. His simple advice for Zen.


I have put in a lot of hard work myself. I want my son to some day ask me how I am so calm. Find your garden and play songs for it, I will say.

It’s been a while since I played for my plants. I take my guitar out back. My fingers are at ease gliding over the fretboard. I sing. I know I sing off key but I also know that off key is better than not singing at all.


My dad’s dog training skills were based on instinct and trial and error. Pepper was a disciplined pup partly because he was so timid and partly because Dougal had shown dad how not to train dogs. There was a third dog in my dad’s life after all us kids had left home. Another golden retriever, ostensibly to replace Dougal.  He named him Karo, for reasons he never truly explained to anyone. Karo was one of the most well behaved dogs. He never jumped on the furniture, never howled out of control, allowed himself to be petted by guests, obeyed commands to sit and roll and even fetched the morning paper every day. I told my dad he had taught Karo well. My dad told me on the contrary Karo taught him new things everyday.


My gardening skills too are based on instinct and trial and error. I try to avoid using fungicides and pest control sprays.  Plants like tomatoes and beans that are most susceptible to pests grow in a raised bed. One year I had a chipmunk problem. They would dig the soil all around my garden. I learned that sprinkling some hot chili on the soil quickly discouraged the perpetrators. To prevent fungus make the soil rich so the plants have natural disease resistance.

Every year I learn something new. The trick is to pay attention.


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An experiment in minimalist fiction View all posts by fictionfuture

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