I've been asked to give a talk on gardening, more specifically, 'Why start a garden?'. It seems so obvious to me, especially since these days when there is a resurgence in gardening. I don't know who the audience is, or the demographic. But that shouldn't matter, I'm guessing that I've been asked to come and share my enthusiasm and passion for gardening. Because I've been gardening for my entire adult life, I don't question why I garden. It becomes more of an existential question since it is so visceral for me.
When the ground starts to thaw and I can smell the earth my instincts kick in. Walking around muddy, sleepy garden beds I see what's coming to back to life. The dissecated stalks from last year's herbs remind me where plants will return. I crush their leaves to see if any aroma remains. Any surviving greens deserve to be tasted or eaten. Root vegetables that weren't harvested last season are pulled out of curiosity. How did they survive the fluctuations of freezing and thawing? I don't wait to wash them, I bite and chew as I discern the sweetness which accumulates as the temps dropped last fall and I'll admit that I don't mind the residual grit that remains in my mouth. The greens that are still vibrant under the cold frames are still worthy of a meal. These are the signs that it's time to get back to work.
Garden chores are done by rote as the season dictates. Then a sort of rhythm ensues. Spring is for clean up and discovery and prepping beds for seeding. By starting long season crops indoors under lights, I get a jump on the season.
Describing a lifestyle that is coupled with the environment may not be easily relatable. We live in a time of great convenience. It's easy to not have to think about food until you're hungry. By that I mean, having the forethought to plant food for the future doesn't apply in the same way it might have in our past. As a modern American, I garden because I choose to, not because I can't subsist by not doing so.
As a young person, I was making a connection to the seasons to my surroundings, and to the whims of nature. Having an appreciation for what my toiling could achieve began to shape a lot of my perceptions around food. To begin with, I realized how much work was required to grow food. A new appreciation for the farmers of this world came into focus. Other people made it so simple for me to go to a grocery store. If anything, when I first started, if attempting to grow something failed, I could still go buy it. But then, growing a garden gave me control over how things would be grown. I didn't realize it at the time but it was a powerful act, I was learning one of the many arts of self reliance coupled with pleasure.
When I was growing up my mom had a garden. Although not extensive, there were always tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchinis and basil in the summer. You may be surprised to learn I had no interest what so ever in helping or learning anything about those gardens, although I love the memory of my father taking the guts from his cleaned fish and blenderizing them into a stinky smoothie that was then lovingly spooned into the base of each tomato plant.
It wasn't until I left home that I dug my first garden. Most likely because I am a vegetarian I decided it was time to learn how to raise my own vegetables. I had no experience, no mentors, just desire. So I delved in, with a few books and a subscription to Organic Gardening I began the journey that would begin to identify me. A few years along I made some new friends that were gardeners, to whom I would look to for guidance. When I look back on some of earliest gardens I'm so impressed by that young me, I had bountiful harvests, I made it my business to learn how to can. I often grew things that I didn't even like (at the time) such as turnips and beets and chard. I just gave them away. Just the pure delight that I received by having grown something eatable was sufficient.
More importantly, I started to make connections with the energy of the garden. I honed my sense of awareness and observation. I was the guardian of this environment and if I paid close attention it would let me know what it needed. And as Michael Pollan describes in his book 'The Botany of Desire', you are no longer manipulating the plants but they start to manipulate you. I became a servant to the garden's needs. Close observation taught me how to slow down and watch, I learned how to get very quiet so I could hear and see. How many times have I been in the garden and lost track of time? Chores in the garden were no longer considered jobs. I am always excited to get to 'work' and then a sense of calm and peace ensues.
Gardening is a lot like being an artist. I grow a variety of medicinal herbs, flowers, fruit trees, seeds and berries in addition to vegetables. I often think of my plants as pallet from which I arrange to create a beautiful scape. I have many gardens all a little different and always, always changing from year to year. Plants are often moved around, I allow for the ones who move on their own to flourish in the the new spot which they've chosen to seed themselves. Whether it is grown to attract beneficial insects or to feed me, the aesthetic component plays as big a part as any of the elements that go into growing a garden. I have to confess there have been times when I (temporarily) didn't harvest a crop as it would change the 'look' of what I've created.
But it's not always harmony and sunshine in the garden. I can be brutal at times, and if it's not producing, it's off with your head and you're out of here! After all, I am in it for the food, space is always at a premium in the garden. Whether you've gone to seed to early or I've been waiting for you to fruit for 5 years, I'm ultimately the master of my little gardening universe.
Something that all gardeners have in common is that we want to share. Over abundance is a gift. When I start seedlings I can't bear not to see them grow to maturity, setting them out to the compost just doesn't seem right, of course I'll try to find a home for them. Perennials that keep expanding scream to be divided. I'm delighted when I find a friend creating a new garden who can use some free plants. It's an opportunity to spread my progeny. I have a special connection to a plant that came from a particular person or place, especially ones that reminds me of a story.
I've come to realize that plants have personalities. I find them to be pushy, shy, mean, slow, fast. They have different needs and in their own way they are communicating. Take the stinging nettle that I've invited into one of the veg gardens, I put it right next to the the entrance and every time I walk by it stings me as a way of reminding me that it's there, I'll often say out loud "I know you're there" in response to their bite. It's one of my favorite nutrient rich spring greens. The one chamomile I put in so many years ago is literally all over the property. She blows around self seeding anywhere she can take purchase. Now I can harvest her flowers from many locales on the property.
For the many years I've been a gardener I've built soil where there was clay and neglect. I've created an 'edible landscape' where there were just water loving shrubs and trees. Now they lure birds and insects who make their homes there. I've made use of a front yard that grew food instead of grass and brought awareness to a community that hadn't seen anything like it beforehand and it created a conversation. I've built gardens for people who didn't know how to and mentored them in the art of gardening and called it a business. Why do I grow a garden? Because it feeds my soul, and it feeds my body. I am nurtured on a metaphysical level that can't be quantified. I hear it calling me, sometimes at great distances, and I wonder, is it dependent on me or am I dependent on it?...