GROW: Gardening - The Good, The Bad and The Heartbreak
Mud has replaced the mostly melted snows, the rain and sunshine exchange places every couple hours, and the moles’ work of winter tunnel building is evident everywhere…signs that Spring is gracefully awakening after a year of rest.
I'm not much of a poet or creative writer but the seasonal changes bring out the philosopher in me. For a gardener, Spring carries the hope and excitement of change and renewal much like a new year inspires personal development goals.
Standing in my large four-legged-proofed vegetable garden in the early morning light, I survey the space that was abandoned after the first heavy snowfall. After several years of dealing with gophers in my raised beds, mole tunnels everywhere else, rabbit holes in my deer fencing and half –finished projects in every direction, I feel a sense of relief that the gophers, moles and rabbits have been redirected through the magic of barriers. My garden is now a fortress for flora: 8 ft tall deer fencing, the bottom two feet wrapped in rabbit proof wire fencing, and concrete mesh in the bottom of my raised beds. The half-finished projects are part of the way I garden and this year is no different: two hugelkultur beds to extend and improve, paths to cover with the free tree trimmings dumped in my pasture last fall, and creative ideas for an edible/medicinal hedgerow and this year - abundant flowers!
I feel my brain kick into check-list mode: check the fall-planted garlic, rhubarb and asparagus covered in straw mulch, clean and organize the greenhouse for seed starting and retrieve the wheelbarrows and hoses from the barn.
At this point, a non-gardener might close the gate, head back into the house and hope for another dumping of snow. Excitement and optimism fuel my energy and grabbing a garden fork, I lightly turn over the straw on my garlic beds, and ponder the question of why I garden. What is the impetus for motivating me into spending 5-10 hours each week shoveling, bending, weeding, watering and transporting wheelbarrows full of horse shit, compost, and soil all over my property?
Motivation as defined by the business dictionary: Internal and external factors that stimulate desire and energy in people to be continually interested and committed to a job, role or subject, or to make an effort to attain a goal.
Sure enough, my motivation for garden includes a mix of internal and external factors.
Nutritious, Clean and Diverse Food
I grow a cornucopia of vegetables, fruits and culinary & medicinal herbs. Food cannot get any fresher and more nutritious then when it is pulled from the garden, walked up to the kitchen and cooked for dinner. Much of store-bought produce is several days old by the time it is placed for display in the grocery stores and some plants like spinach have already lost 50% of its nutrients through the natural process of dying.
In addition to freshness and nutrition, my gardens are 100% organic so I am able to avoid exposure to pesticides and herbicides. And I love the option to try new vegetable cultivars that are not available in grocery stores: purple vegetables, Dragon Tongue greens, and basils of many flavors. There is never enough growing space for all that I want to grow...which my middle-aged body says is probably a good thing!
All Things Herbs
Culinary herbs were some of my first growing successes. I love the fresh leaves of basil, sage, thyme, oregano, savory, parsley and cilantro. I dry large amounts of herbs for winter's use in teas and cooking - the quality and retention of flavor cannot be beat. Over the last decade, I have studied herbal medicine and now grow far more healing herbs to make nourishing infusions, tasty teas, healing salves, facial creams and body butters and an home apothecary full of herbal remedies. By growing my own herbs and making my own personal products, I avoid toxic residues and synthetic petro-chemicals found in most commercial products.
I also use fresh and dried herbs to make my primary cleaning solution, to dye wool and silk, and to fill vases around the house. (Psst...please don't tell the vegetables but herbs have my heart, and I enjoy growing them tremendously!)
These days I spend a lot of time sitting at my computer researching and writing for work and creative projects. In case, you haven’t heard, sitting is the new smoking: our bodies are designed to move regularly. Gardening offers me a natural way for my body to move. It’s not aerobic; it’s more like a clunky yoga flow. I am conscious of my body as it bends or stretches and often while there working on a bed of plants, I casually move into a yoga pose, stretching and activating muscles. I revel in both the energy of movement and later,that bone-tired exhaustion felt at that end of a a spring afternoon spent moving in the garden. According to the Center for Disease Control, there is plenty of research that supports the benefits of moving frequently and regularly:
- Lowers blood pressure & improves cardiorespiratory functioning
- Reduces stress levels
- Improves mental functioning
- Better regulation of blood sugar
- Increases muscular strength and endurance
- Increases flexibility and improved joint health
- Improves immune system function
- Better control of body fat
- Increases awareness of body
Add some aerobic activity 3-4 times a week, some weight lifting, a few focused yoga sessions and you will be in good shape.
Intimacy With Nature
The early morning hours of spring and summer are special. I am fortunate to live on 5 acres, surrounded by Doug Firs and Ponderosa pines. After winter’s silence, the birds are chattering: Stellar Jays are the noisiest, robins' songs come in second, and the occasional woodpecker pecking on nearby trees. The squirrels and chipmunks squeal warnings as I walk through their territory. As I bend over to check on seedlings, I hear the unmistakable whistle-call of a red-tail hawk. The raven couple fly over cawing a good morning to me. As the growing season moves along, I'll encounter earthworms, spiders, lesser-eared lizards, an eclectic group of pollinators and engage in my annual disagreement with aphids. Watching the pollinators work the garden has opened a door of curious questions about the fascinating behaviors of insects and bugs. Not all insects are bad; in fact, only 3 % of the one million plus identified species are considered pests.
Growing plants is a remarkable opportunity to fully appreciate nature and its complexities. Witnessing a life cycle is a humbling and sacred experience: seeds germinate, stems push up through the soil, leaves unfurl, flower buds open into flowers, flowers become fruits and fruits dry out to release seeds for the next generation.
Science has acknowledged that our brains are wired for connection with nature, and studies have shown that time spent in nature benefits our brains and our stress levels. In an ego-centric culture like ours, I feel my focus shift to the garden ecosystem that is alive with activity of others.
Love of Learning
Speaking of brains, learning and problem-solving are activities that keep our neural networks humming. Too many people tend to drop active and intentional learning after they leave formal schooling. Gardening is filled with lessons to be learned, research to be done and problems to be solved.
I am hooked on the act of learning. I love lessons in all of their intentional and unintentional packages. Four decades ago, the world of plants opened my mind to a state of constant curiosity. With over 400,000 identified plant species, their individual and purposeful niches in our ecosystems, their unique relationships with pollinators and their generous offerings to humans, I will never run out of things to learn.
Gardening is a practice, a science and an art and is chockfull of learning opportunities. During the last few years, I have studied the design systems philosophy of permaculture, incorporating some of its basic concepts and ideas into my garden. And of course, the study of herbalism offers humans a lens on the individual gifts of plants. I can’t imagine how anyone can be bored when there is so much to know about the world of plants.
Creativity in our culture is not valued as much as say, work ethic or skills. As children, we explore our creative natures but slowly that is replaced with the busy-ness of tasks and the business of skill-learning. Many of us enter adulthood with the notion that only creative people get to do creative things and that's only because they are good at it. Somewhere many of us learned that we were no longer creative.
My vegetable & herb gardens are truly a palette that I design and create with plants of differing sizes, colors, and shapes. Sometimes I employ logic and design aesthetics; other times the plant goes where it does because it's the only spot open. My garden looks different every year as I explore new projects and plants. Like all creative processes, there are learning opportunities (AKA as mistakes) and there are amazing successes. Then, one day in late summer, I look around and see another masterpiece I have created.
Each hour I spend in the garden is income for me: I don't sell what I grow but I don't buy much during the growing season. When I do buy fresh produce in the months I don't grow, I easily spend $150-200 per month on fruits and vegetables. I'll stop here with my garden economics because I don't really want to know what my actual hourly wage is for my garden efforts. Ignorance can be bliss sometimes.
Now for the bad...
As much I enjoy my time gardening, I experience conflicts throughout the growing season. I live in the Pacific Northwest - a region filled with amazing geography, incredible vistas, waterfalls, rivers, rainforests, high desert, mountains, coastal beaches and diverse ecosystems - and I feel the call to hike, fish, camp, backpack and kayak during the seasons of warmth and blooming native plants. It's difficult to escape for a few days, much less a week when the garden needs harvesting and the food and herbs need processing.
I have too many interests and hobbies; this is a bigger problem then you may realize. Unfinished craft projects, stacks of books to be read, writing to be done (you should see my blog content list for this website) and lists of goals, strategies, and tasks. For years, I would become frustrated with myself for not getting more done during the summer...acting as if I was wasting time in the garden! It took a while for me to come to terms with this addiction to productivity, this need to always to be producing something.
I worked as a gardener last year for a winery and learned a bit about the wine crush. Like vegetables, the grapes ripen over a short period of time and must be quickly crushed, properly stored, tested and monitored. Vegetable gardening is similar; while some of what I grow is harvested regularly throughout the season, a big chunk of what I grow ripens in August and September and it needs to be processed for winter storage. I garden solo and at some point each season, usually around late August, I feel overwhelmed by all of the harvest heaped on counters. The last few years that emotional response shows up in conjunction with several days in a row of 100° temps. Excessive heat means extra watering, early harvest and additional protection above and beyond the daily garden chores and my professional responsibilities.
I get a tad whiny as I mumble to myself that I would rather be lounging on the deck, chilled cocktail and a good book in hand.
Those two negatives outweigh the positives but I am working on compromises: I now make spaces of time to escape to the wild places, and I mostly stopped canning (which adds considerably to the workload of processing). Once retired, I hope to be able to devote more time to gardening, processing and playing.
Oh, the heartbreak...
You can't avoid it: nature has a way of reminding you who's in charge and it's not you. In a weird kind of way, the stages of grief can be applied to the occasional heartbreak moments in a garden. Am I being a drama queen? I don't think so. Here are some of my more recent moments of gardening's tragic dramas:
When I spend three months germinating seed, tending seedlings, transplanting, watering, weeding and then, walk out to my garden on a beautiful July morning and see two holes where plants existed the night before, I get a bit crazy. Gophers! In denial and hopeful they have moved on, I return the next morning and see two more holes. Now angry, I realize there's not much I could do at this point. They had a daily buffet of my vegetables for the rest of the season. It was heartbreaking and infuriating.
Those cute little cottontails? Not so cute as they demolish the lettuce beds, chew holes in my plastic mesh deer fencing and invite their friends to join them each morning.
I never understood why Elmer Fudd was so angry at rabbits...but I do now.
While only 3% of insects are troublesome, that 3 % can do some serious damage when they discover a vegetable garden. Aphids are my nemeses and seem to show up when I take a few days off for a weekend trip.
Several years ago, after applying copious amounts of my neighbor's beautifully composted horse manure, several of my crops began to look sick. I spent many hours trying to figure out what was happening, coming up empty. Eventually, another gardener who had used the same horse manure reported a similar experience in her garden. She had her soil tested and the results showed a high level of herbicide residue. The hay my neighbor purchased to feed her horses, had been contaminated by what the hay grower believed must have been drift from another grower's spraying. This herbicide is not affected by the horses's digestive system and takes years to break down so it continues to do its job by killing plants when applied as compost in gardens. My neighbor felt terrible but we were all victims of what is becoming a more frequent issue for gardeners.
When you have invested time, energy, money and patience in a part of your life, it becomes a relationship and the emotions are similar to those experienced with any relationship. Each summer I build a relationship with my plants and my soil and like all relationships, there are moments of pain and heartbreak.
Still, I can't imagine my life without my garden...except maybe in late August. I could imagine it then.