My husband and I joined the ranks of eager first-time gardeners in 2020. We bought a small two-foot by eight-foot raised garden bed and set it up on a deck just outside our back door. It was our first season ever to try gardening and growing our own food, but as the old saying goes, “Being homebound in an international pandemic is indeed the mother of invention.”
We learned our first set of lessons in heart-breaking fashion: we began our seeds indoors, and when they needed to be up-potted into larger cell trays, we set those trays on the ground of our garage under some flimsy grow lights we had found on Amazon. The very next morning when we ran out to check on our little “plant babies,” we were greeted with a horror show.
Every single seedling had been eaten.
We had easily planted 100+ seedlings and in less than 24 hours we discovered that we had a family of voles who could shimmy their way into the garage and escape without leaving a trace.
A humble 2020 growing season led to ambitious plans in 2021.
Our first season eventually turned into a moderate success: we ate romaine lettuce and zucchini from our garden that summer. Our tomato plants started to show flower buds right as our first frost showed up. Better luck next time.
When we turned our eyes to the 2021 season, we decided to throw caution to the wind and try planting a cut flower garden. We sketched out plans to grow Colorado-friendly flowers in three new raised beds that we planned to build from scratch. We created spreadsheets and color-coded graphics to indicate succession planning zones vs. perennials vs. plant-em-and-forget-em areas.
But when I began digging (no pun intended) into the nitty, gritty, not-easily-organized-in-Excel details, I felt overwhelmed at the unending specificity of planting, growing and harvesting a living organism from the ground.
The first thing that really struck me about playing Pretend Gardener is how much soil health matters in gardening. I had never really made the connection before: that what you’re planted in directly affects your ability to flourish.
Did you know every year you ought to re-pot even regular house plants? You’re supposed to replace 25% of the soil volume in potted plants with fresh compost every spring. I did exactly what the experts said to do for the first time this season (sorry, plant babies), and several of my plants are now flourishing and growing new shoots and leaves.
When you’re growing flowers and vegetables, the soil also needs regular fertilizing, too. I learned this year that fertilizer comes in all shapes and sizes, depending on the pH levels that each individual plant, flower or vegetable needs. When I first read this, I realized that my original spreadsheet of 2021 needed to be re-arranged because I had unknowingly planned to grow flowers side by side that needed completely opposite pH and nitrogen levels.
To make things even more complicated, every single organism we planned to plant this season also had specific needs for horizontal and vertical space. Some needed special gates and fencing around each individual stem or bush just so they wouldn’t fall over from their own weight.
And don’t forget watering. I ended up trimming back some flowers from our original sketches because I realized we didn’t have enough square footage in our garden to accommodate the flowers’ diverse watering needs. Some flowers need water every day. Some like a little spritz on their leaves. And some will fall over and die in dramatic fashion if even a drop of water touches their leaves at any point in their fragile lives.
My own self-care needed a wake-up call.
The details never stopped piling up. I found myself one evening feeling a bit angry at how much work one tiny little flower takes.
In that moment, I asked myself, What is the alternative?
To which I replied, Well, I guess it’s to be left alone and never thought about again.
Oof. Talk about a smack across the chops.
Deep down inside what I secretly wanted was a beautiful, flourishing flower garden that I didn’t have to think about more than once or twice a month. Obviously, my expectations were not aligning with the reality of growing anything, let alone a cut flower garden I hoped might produce enough to create bouquets for folks in town.
Gardening is full of lessons for human growth and nourishment.
This led me to think back on all my jobs as a writer and editor in the corporate world. How often were creatives dropped into white-washed cubicles and expected to produce award-winning ad copy and designs? Once when I was working on-site at a hospital, some nurses were in tears describing the “terror” or “passive disdain” with which their supervisors treated them every day. And yet these nurses were expected to make decisions all day long that sometimes impacted whether a patient lived or died.
Growing natural matter in the ground is fraught with obstacles and particularities. But gardeners don’t have the luxury of shrugging their shoulders and looking the other way. They have to pay attention to all these needs because the outcome is instant and severe: a plant or flower either lives or dies. And when it’s on its way to an almost certain death, a gardener has a narrow window of time to revive it. Gardeners pay attention to and respond to all these details because no one is going to buy a wilted head of lettuce or droopy daffodils. In the natural world, the consequences of neglect are black and white.
How often, I wondered, do we put ourselves in situations where we check out and expect everything to still turn out rosy?
I know for certain that in the late ’90s, my dad worked for a company that didn’t give two nickels’ concern about the physical well-being of their outside techs. My dad spent years driving around the suburbs of Dallas in a clunky old van that had no air conditioner. Occasionally his job assignments required him to climb into attics on the hottest days of the year, dragging his body across fiberglass insulation.
He would come home every day with salty stria tracing along the back of his shirt, a testament to how many times he had sweat through his clothing in a day. The supervisors didn’t care that there was nothing to re-hydrate and replenish the outside techs’ physical reserves. They didn’t stop to consider these harsh working conditions and the techs didn’t think to challenge them because the general message from the higher ups was: we can toss you out if you fall apart.
Imagine if a gardener treated their crop that way? It wouldn’t get anywhere. It would wilt and die before it even had a chance to really thrive. Imagine all the ways we willingly treat ourselves like disposable objects? How many times have I signed up for projects or was part of churches that measured people only for their willingness to be used and discarded? Too many, I tell you.
So if the natural world completely rejects the notion that vegetables, fruits, flowers, plants and trees can be abused and utterly neglected and still reach their potential, then why can’t we see humans in the same light?
Lessons for the life outside the garden.
As we’re nearing the end of our 2021 growing season in the mountains, I see a lot of things in a different light. Mainly that gardening is completely and utterly underappreciated amongst (former) city folks like me. Sure, I was taught that food comes from farms, not from grocery stores. But beyond that, I had no idea how much science, strategy, innovation and intuition go into gardening. Consider me eating humble pie for the rest of my life. Thank you, gardeners and farmers. I bow with deep gratitude to you.
I’m also perplexed by this realization that I expect things to flourish in my life without having to really dig deeply into them. Perhaps this is a protective mechanism. Or I’m lazy. But part of me suspects that I haven’t yet really absorbed one of the biggest lessons my garden has been trying to teach me: that everything in this world is interconnected and interdependent.
And this reality isn’t something plants (or any of us) can just opt out of because they feel like going their own way. When the health of one plant suffers in a garden, the root systems of the surrounding plants are highly likely to be harmed too—whether or not the injury or poison is immediately obvious on the surface or not.
It’s an interesting proposal to apply to the human condition: that any time you or I work ourselves into the ground or mentally talk down to ourselves, there are others around us who are affected by it, directly or indirectly.
When a group of employees is overworked, underpaid and under-appreciated, their “underground root systems” are all being pulled down.
Imagine if we treated ourselves—and expected to be treated—with as much tender care and attention as the flowers in my garden.
Imagine what would happen if we started acting as if we really did belong to one another.
Maybe then we’d really start to flourish.