philosophy


“The garden is calling to me” is a phrase I repeat often in the time I refer to as “pre-spring”, otherwise known as “winter” by everyone else.  But it is the tail-end of winter!  The time when you can feel the life force beginning to surge in the great outdoors, when the sun’s presence reasserts itself.  The plants begin to grow, albeit slowly.  When people compliment me on my garden, I feel bashful.  I am not responsible for the beauty revealed in my garden.   Mother Nature (whatever THAT means) is primarily responsible.  I feel that I am actually the servant of the garden. There is an often cited quote, “The gardener’s shadow is the best fertilizer.”  All that is truly required to have a great garden is your presence.   As I wander around, enjoying the garden, I check on the growth of my plants, and make a mental list of the various tasks at hand, from great to small.  Some may seem critical, if you don’t do it soon, the plant will die.  Others, not so much, but grander.  A new tree!  More shrubs!  And some are neither critical, nor grand, but entirely pleasant and relaxing.  Some tasks do not require your entire attention, and so you can relax, do a little something and enjoy the natural world.  There are some views of my garden that are glorious, if seen from a small stool.  No one ever has that view except me, it is one of the small rewards of weeding.

I am reading a fascinating book right now called Flow, The Psychology of Optimal Experience, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.  You may have heard of the concept of Flow, which is known as being “in the groove” or “in the zone”.  It is the state of absorption in an activity where “you” cease to be aware of your self, and are simply the doer.  You can reach this deep state of consciousness through many activities, from yoga and meditation, to athletics, music, deep reading, or painting, really any activity that engages you completely.  Flow is optimal experience, and brings with it a deep feeling of enjoyment and satisfaction.  Dr. Csikszentmihaly, a psychologist who spent 30 years of his career studying flow, came up with 8 components of flow that are often mentioned by people who have experienced it.  Of these 8, I feel that the ones most relevant to the flow of gardening are that the experience involves tasks that we can complete, the tasks have clear goals and provide feedback, and in doing the tasks, one is so involved that the worries and frustrations of everyday life fade away.  Flow is the deep enjoyment we gain from our gardens, from our experience of learning and growing with them.

Over the years as I have been gardening I have observed many people become gardeners.  It is a slow unfolding process, becoming a gardener sets your sense of time over the long term, weeks, months, years.  Gardening engages all the senses, we can all relate to the taste of a homegrown tomato, the scent of roses wafting through the air, the beautiful colors of flowers, the sound of summer insects and bird song, the texture of dirt.  Through our gardens we also access our intellectual curiosity, about science, history, food, art, our own memories.  Gardening is so satisfying because any effort reaps rewards.  Just plant one pot, put good dirt in it, remember to water it.  You will become attached to that plant as it grows.  As nutty as it may sound to the non-gardener, I have a personal relationship with each plant in my garden.  So much of what needs to be done in the garden is not terribly time dependent and is also broken down into simple tasks.  No matter how challenging it can be sometimes, to fit it into my busy schedule, to solve the pesky little problems that may arise, ultimately I get nothing but joy, a joy of the purest kind, from my gardening.  I think the potential for this passion and love of gardening is in everyone.  It is life affirming, relaxing, fascinating, uplifting, and just down-right fun to garden.

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Today I spent the day watching my beans emerge.  Not the whole day, non-stop, I have of course been in the throes of May madness.  Since May 15th, our last frost date, I have been planting, planting, planting, all the tender annuals that I have been collecting from the nurseries over the past few weeks, and all the ones I have been caring for in the basement.  When I went out this morning to get started, I noticed a few beans were cracking the soil.  I planted them last Sunday, but had feared that the birds had gotten them.  By the end of the day the beans were (almost) all up, with their first true leaves unfolding.  Such a miracle, this transformation from hard dry seed to lush green plant.  Such faith needed, to wait patiently (or not) for the natural processes to do their thing.  This week I have been contemplating the similarities between mothering and gardening, and the anticipated appearance of these bean plants struck me as a poetic symbol of that relationship.

Last week while wandering around the internet, looking for other gardeners blogging about kitchen and wildlife gardening, I found a great website (but sadly forgot to bookmark it!).  The blogger had just had her first baby in December and it made me think about the challenges of mothering and gardening.  And that led me to a revelation about what the garden has to teach mothers.  Mothering and gardening both require patience and faith, to allow the being in question, whether plant or child, to develop naturally.  Most of our time is spent waiting and observing, filling our time cleaning up or feeding.  But then comes the moment when a corrective action needs to be taken, a branch pruned, floppy stems tied up, a bandaid applied to a cut knee, hurt feelings assuaged, and we have to be present, to attend to the need for nurturance.  To allow the natural processes to unfold, while being prepared for a timely intervention to coax into a more civilized form.

Now obviously the child needs constant care, whereas the garden can take care of itself.  If something goes wrong in the garden, a dry spell or an aphid infestation, and you cannot tend to it, the garden will survive.  Not so much with the child, especially a small one. But still, there are some powerful similarities.  Working with the natural form and inclinations, patiently guiding their development.  Adapting to the conditions that are presented to you, whether it is a child’s personality or a certain soil type.  Ultimately you are on your own, because no one has ever been in this time and place, with these conditions, before.  You have to develop your own philosophy and your own methods for coping with the vagaries of your situation.  You can only learn how to garden, and to mother, by doing it.  You have to get your hands dirty, you have to make mistakes, in order to learn how to do it.  At first it may seem daunting, overwhelming even, but at a certain point, you somehow know the right thing to do at the right moment.  And all the while you experience the joy of nurturing something, or someone, inherently beautiful.