Feeling Grateful: “The Flock” published in GreenPrints gardening literary magazine

Thank you to the international students who helped me at the NCC East 40 Community Garden. My personal essay will be published in GreenPrints’ gardening literary magazine “The Weeder’s Digest.” Wondering what to gift your gardener friend for the holidays? I recommend this piece of happy mail. 


Autumn is holding summer hostage. I streak from my classroom to the community garden hoop-house. Driving down the rocky path to my flourishing cold hardy greens, I reach in the passenger’s seat for my gardening garb. As I switch out my dirt-brown blazer for a stained T-shirt, I savor a moment alone. Just a few parking lots away from my students, I change my clothes and hope to mend my day.

The adult students’ elementary behavior has drained my patience. Who would have thought that re-rooting immigrants would be so labor-intensive?

Feeling as though I am in a scene from Mission Impossible, I crack my car door open to check if anyone is there. I sneak into my oasis to give it a wealthy sprinkle. Fridays are my days on the watering schedule. Despite the calendar’s insistence on October, it is 80 degrees outside and significantly hotter inside these plastic walls. I pull my hair into a bun and bow down to the 6×6 foot raised bed. My parsley and leeks have been thriving for weeks; lettuces flourish. First came the arugula – always that unruly one – then the baby spinach and finally my favorite, sweet red and green. Fooled by the heat, weeds scatter (abundantly in my plot, I’m so lucky). Rather than deal with the mess, I embrace the growth. I fidget with the padlock, and then find a large plastic bag in the shed. I fill it with an assortment of greens and an untimely garlic scape I had forgotten.

Something that’s mine, I thought. I hadn’t been feeling at home in my house for quite some time. A writer lost in a teacher’s costume, I needed grounding. Ah, my hoop-house home. At last, alone with my plants.

Then, chatter. For a split second, I wonder if students are babbling in my head. Nope. They are here, in the flesh, live and loud.

I poke my head out the door and see a group of international students charging my way. Their mouths yap like a flock of birds, somehow communicating in a web of dialects. They frolic – hands to the wind, arms swinging, smiles eagerly awaiting purpose.

“Do you need any help?” Alfred chirps in a thick South African accent.

Startled by his question, I reply, “No, it’s okay, you don’t have to help me.”

“But teacher, it’s our volunteer time,” he insists. “Please, give us something to do.”

“Oh…oh…kay?” I step back toward my private hideaway. My former students and their friends, here to help me? This is a twist.

“Come on, then! Pick up a bag on your way in,” I say.

Like ducklings on a mission, they trail one by one. I welcome them to help me harvest.

“I know this one,” says Dila, a Turkish girl who is a few years younger than me.

“Yeah, it’s parsley,” I say.

They huddle and reminisce about parsley in their comfort foods – tossed with tomatoes in tabbouleh, cooked with lemon in chicken kebabs.

“Ow!” “Owwww!” I hear. They’ve found the thistles.

Alfred asks, “Are those food?”

“Absolutely not,” I assure him. Damn, those things are the bane of my gardening existence.

“It’s a weed,” I declare.

“Weed?!” another guy exclaims. “I thought that was illegal.”

“Not THAT weed!” I explain.

After a good laugh, he asks, “Would you like us to pull them?”

Then commenced a ruthless competition of courtesy – our assimilated Iranian game of “taarof.”

“Please, no, you don’t have to do that.”

“Please, it’s our job, it’s our volunteer time.”

“It’s okay, that doesn’t need to be done today.”

“I’d be happy to do it.”

“No, no, please, it’s my garden.”

“It’s our garden, please, let us help.”

“Please?”

“No, it’s fine.”

“Pretty please?”

The trickle of tweets and twiddles descends, and then…

“Stop! Hold up. Drop everything. Now, let me get this straight. Are you telling me that you all are…volunteering…to pull my thistles?” I ask. Without a word, Alfred yanks the first one. Before my very eyes, it was out of the ground. Then they all join in.

Suddenly, it rains thistles, their tiny needles playfully pricking my face as they travel toward precarious piles. Students swarm, like a flock of sparrows descending on a corn field. Engulfed by the task, they dance – a global performance ensues in this confined space. The flock furiously flaps their wings. While each wallop to the beat of their own drum, a strong unifying energy permeates the hot air.

I crouch in silence. As a teacher, I was constantly helping them. “Teacher, teacher,” they would say. “Just one quick question, teacher, teacher. What is simple present tense?”

And here is Alfred’s herd weeding my garden. I arrived feeling unbalanced, and they gave me a nutrient boost. How can I repay that priceless gesture?

I look at those plastic bags of greens and admit to myself that I don’t need to hoard that much salad in my little house a town away. These students can use it more. Not much younger than me, they traveled halfway around the world to volunteer in our community garden. Usually, international students complain about cafeteria food. What better way for them to end the day than to garnish that sad fare with a few sprigs of parsley.

I muster a few words. “I’m sorry, I have to get going soon. Thank you so much for your help today, I didn’t expect you to come. What a wonderful surprise. It was very nice of you…Please, please, take the food you picked back to the dorms.”

Murmuring among themselves, they seem unsure how to receive this favor. Finally, Dila exclaims, “I can make kebabs with this!” and punctuates her declaration by biting off a large chunk of parsley from a thick stem. Chomp. Chomp. Chomp.

I arrived at the community garden, growth stunted and drained, feeling cheated. I poured vats of energy into these students, and complained that I didn’t get much in return. I left feeling inspired and grateful. Their enthusiasm, spontaneity and generosity revived me. I admit, teaching has been a thorn in my side. Yet Alfred pulled a thistle from my heart.  Little do they know, these special people brought me back to life. Hmmm, maybe I’ll tell them.

Sienna Mae Heath is a garden writer for multiple publications, including GreenPrints literary magazine, and an architectural writer for a leading marketing company. She is available to write content for landscape architecture firms in Pennsylvania and around the world.
Thanks, Pat Stone, for welcoming me into your community of garden writers!

15 thoughts on “Feeling Grateful: “The Flock” published in GreenPrints gardening literary magazine

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