There’s a lot to learn in the garden
We have outlined many benefits of gardening in a previous blog post. This time, I’m reaching beyond science, beauty and bounty to share what I have learned in the garden about expectation, disappointment and new beginnings.
It’s easy to get carried away in February, when ice reigns, the light is hinting at a return and the urge to get growing takes hold. This year, I outlined my most aggressive gardening plan to date, which included the installation of several new beds for vegetables, perennials and annuals, revamping existing beds and planting several trees.
In my enthusiasm, I cheerfully dismissed any concern about the travel and event plans that would remove me from the garden for 2½ months during the early summer, which is peak gardening time. I told myself that I could pull off my ambitious plan by waking up at 4:00 a.m. every day (I am not a morning person) and spending every spare moment that presented itself working in the garden.
Naturally, pretending that I had the time to pull this off and actually pulling it off were two different things. With so many extra projects, I didn’t give myself time for the basics like weeding and planting the vegetables on time (the squash did not get the chance to ripen before the frost came). I only added one new bed of the five I had planned on and only revamped half of an existing bed. Many of my seedlings went unplanted. As I watched the entire yard turn into an impenetrable jungle over the course of the summer, the rest of those seedlings languished away, abandoned in their tiny black plastic trays. The apex of the setbacks came in mid-August when I fractured my foot while planting a tree. The injury removed me from the garden for six weeks, the season already waning.
My disappointment in my accomplishments was palpable. I dreaded going out to the garden, faced with the wildness that had taken over. Somehow, my dedication never waned during the previous year, despite my four part-time jobs (one of which was a physically demanding gardening job) and the fact that it was my intern year for the University of MN Extension Master Gardener Volunteer Program. Why was it that I could find the time to make progress last year and not this year?
I had no choice but to accept my failures and allow nature to take its own course. Then some beautiful things happened. A wild patch of blue morning glory appeared and took over the rain barrel and the side of my raised bed herb garden. Only two of the six sunflowers that I planted survived, but they grew gloriously tall. My foxglove, a biennial that I had planted the previous year, bloomed spectacularly. There is something celebratory in partially unbounded nature. I came to understand my injury as a gift, granting me the understanding that the garden is fine without me and that the physical ability to garden is a privilege.
This unexpected change in plans opened my heart to patience once again, and I rediscovered my enthusiasm for working in the garden. Once I was cleared by my physical therapists for regular activities, I got back out there. I planted 75 new bulbs, including giant white alliums, crocuses and tulips . We took down two winter-burnt yews to make space for an azalea shrub next year. We took out an old diseased peony and replaced it with a beautiful variegated dogwood. None of these projects were on the original list.
Planning can be a useful tool, but not if it is unwittingly weaponized against spontaneity, creativity and fluidity. I am human, and setbacks are almost a certainty. I can trust that my garden will always be there, patiently waiting for me to tend to it—or not. I can give myself permission to go easy when I need to and allow things to unfold naturally. I’m paying out both large and small dividends to my future self whenever I complete projects here and there. Some years, I may just sit back and enjoy what I have sown the previous year. My garden taught me to give myself grace.
Going into this past growing season, I already knew that gardening takes commitment. What I learned coming out of it is that it also takes flexibility. It’s a slow burn. This year, the garden gave me the gifts of humility and self-compassion, disguised as failure.
University of MN Extension Master Gardener Volunteer