Stumbling Up the Garden Path

You can bury a lot of troubles digging in the dirt. – Author Unknown

This quote sums up my path to gardening.  I was never a plant person.  I am a visual artist; a painter, a sculptor.  I make things with my hands.  Plants make themselves.  I never quite got other people’s fascination with gardening and plants.  After reading May Sarton’s works many years ago, I admired her patient passion for her garden, but still didn’t understand it or envy it.  My attitude was that plants, domesticated to a garden setting, are needy.  It takes a lot of time and attention to cultivate them to your liking, and then when you turn your back, they go ahead and do what they want anyway.  When you are making visual art you bend your medium to your will and then it stays that way; much more gratifying to my impatient nature.

What drove me to gardening was psychotic dementia; not mine, my father’s.  The last few years of his life were grim with everything no one wants to see an aging parent go through.  You especially don’t want to go through it with them, but I was my father’s caretaker, determined to do the right thing.  As bad as it was for me, it was far worse for him; I suffered, he suffered, then I suffered again for him.  My support system included comfort food, red wine, therapy, and pharmaceuticals, but after a few years I began to feel like I was losing ground right along with my father.

One day I went to Home Depot and parked down by the garden center because there were more spaces there.  On my way through the garden area, I noticed some plants.  They were robust and green and somehow appealing.  I did my other shopping and when I came back through the garden area, I stopped and actually looked at the plants.  As I stood there I felt a little bubble of calm arise in me.  I hadn’t felt calm in a long time.  Whether is was some neurological effect in my brain caused by the wavelength of the color green, or the concentration of newly minted oxygen in that environment, or both, I suddenly felt . . . good.  The longer I wandered around looking at plants, the better I felt.  I bought some and took them home and planted them.  I was doing hopeless crisis care-taking at the time, and the act of planting those little plants, then watering them, then checking on them every day to see how they were doing, was pure pleasure and a balm like no other.  It was care-taking with hope.  From then on, when things got tough, I planted plants.

I knew nothing about plants, so I put a lot of wrong plants in the wrong places for a long time.  My artist’s eye was simply drawn to certain plants and how they looked.  My art is all about pattern and texture and structure, so that’s what I was attracted to in plants.  I squandered some good plants due to my horticultural ignorance, but I did pay attention and learned by experience.  Color was of little interest, so flowering plants weren’t my thing; just the play of light on form and texture, and the juxtaposition of line and shape.  My garden was a green art work I was building, and unlike my other works, this piece was just for me.

Now several years later, my father is gone, the art market that once supported me is gone, but the garden and I are still here.  Someone is quoted as saying, “Unemployment is capitalism’s way of getting you to plant a garden.” I had already started a garden, but unemployment has been a boon for it.  Planting, moving, replanting, pruning, weeding, fertilizing, watering, puttering, and simple plant gazing can easily become a full time job.  It certainly is a full time education.

Here are some of the things I have learned about gardening:

There are micronutrients in soil which can only be absorbed into the human body through the tender tissue underneath one’s fingernails and between the toes.  These nutrients contain chemical compounds which enhance positive mood and sense of well-being.  For this reason, gardening gloves and shoes are ultimately a health risk.

When one becomes a gardener, the occurrence of rain shifts from a non-event, or a nuisance, to a cause for humble celebration.  Rain ceases to be a mere meteorological event and suddenly looms large as a beneficent blessing from the gods, a nurturing gift that plants and the people who grow them appreciate only too well.

Plants are Buddhists who don’t have to practice; they just are.  They do not rush, nor can they be rushed, because there is no such thing as the future to a plant. There is just the now.  I think that is why I feel so calm in the presence of plants; they do not reflect any feelings of want or frustration and certainly don’t validate them in me.  We tend to project a lot of our feelings onto plants and our relationships with them (especially when it comes to weeds), but that is our problem, not theirs.

Plants devotedly mind their own business, and therefore are exceptionally good at what they do.

The most important thing I have learned from gardening is how much I have to learn from plants and about plants.  And how good they make me feel whether I learn anything or not.  At the very least, I can bury a lot of troubles just by digging in the dirt;  without gloves and wearing flip flops.

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