I‘m thinking a lot about the garden these days. So many of the plants have run their course. I see withering stalks and curled leaves, rotten tomatoes we never managed to pick, carcasses of squash and zucchini emptied by beetles. Nearly everything we worked for, worked towards, and worked with is dying. All that effort. Was it worth it?
All of those hours I spent in the garden, especially on weekends—was there a better way to spend my free time? I could have been kicking back by a pool, or teeing off on a golf course; reclining in a cool movie theater, or hiking some exciting peak. Wouldn’t that have been a better use of my free time?
Instead I spent my weekends with dirt clinging to my clothes, plastered to my knees, and cemented beneath my fingernails. The sun beat down. My throat was parched. The weeds were tenacious. It was hard work. Shouldn’t I have been doing something fun? Something other than work? How much effort did I invest for a few leaves of lettuce? Wouldn’t it have been easier and even cheaper to buy some?
No, no, and nope. There is no place that I would rather have been, and it was worth it. A garden has it all—it offers every quality that we seek in our rush to fill our free time with entertaining activities. Even better, the pleasures that it yields are not virtual or vicarious; neither partial nor addictive. They are real bodily sensory gifts that nourish and edify—and not just in the summer. They last all year around.
Drama. Whether we are seeking pleasure from sporting events or movies, video games or television shows, the basic structure is the same: good guys versus bad guys. Our team versus yours. Us versus them. We love to pick a fight, to cheer for our chosen side, and be the ones who are sure to win.
There is no greater drama than the one that begins when we plant a seed and watch it grow. Whatever nourishes the seed is good. Whatever doesn’t is bad. Suddenly there is a host of interesting enemies to study and track. There are beetles, weeds and woodchucks, slugs and slime and fungus. Sure, the bad guys are innocent; but they are wild and wily, requiring every strategy and skill in the book.
There are always mysteries to solve. Who put a hole into that leaf? Why is that zucchini shrinking? When will those peas be ready to pop? It may take some sleuthing, but the clues are there, if you know where to look.
Artistry. If you want to be dazzled by design, if you want to engage all of your senses all at once in a feast of beauty, go to a garden. The sight, smell, touch, taste, and even the sounds are stunning. Even now, heart-shaped kale leaves curl toward the ground. Shiny chard fronds catch the sun. The rounding shape of a pumpkin turning orange, the dried twist of snap pea threads, the crinkle of a cabbage head, slender sheaths of green beans all catch my eye, gather my nose, pull my fingers forward, and set my mouth watering. I see and smell and hear my food, blowing in the breeze.
Our human senses evolved for this. They evolved to be taken in by the beauty of the plants whose fruits and shoots and roots nourish us. Our senses evolved to move and be moved to gather and tend a wide range of colors and shapes, tangs, tarts, and sweets. Our current western diet trains us to a narrow band of sugar and salt, and we wonder why we crave something that we lack.
Action. The drama and artistry of a garden are even because we participate. It is impossible to plant a seed and just watch. You have to be a part of its process. You have to help it grow. Its success or failure depends on what you do. What a rush to be a part of the action—to be the one to wrench the weed or squish the bug. To free the tiny shoot of a pumpkin plant that will soon yield pounds of fruit.
You carry the ball. You go for the goal. You decide whether your watermelon are thirsty, whether your green beans fatten too long into pasty meal, or whether your tomato will be plucked before it falls. You mobilize your bodily self in patterns of sensing and responding to what is.
And when your action matters, you care. You care about what you are doing and what you are creating and what you will be able to eat as a result.
Luxury. Go to any gourmet restaurant and see what is on the menu: local ingredients, freshly picked, whipped into homemade treats. And nearly every night this summer, we had it here. The finest freshest fruits! Like salads with our own lettuce, arugula, cucumbers, carrots, and tomatoes, and home made potato bread, served alongside pasta tossed with sautéed onion, garlic, basil, and chard, topped with mozzarella cheese we made from milk our kids pulled from the cows grazing on our hillside. Only the pasta and wheat were not ours. Though Jordan has plans.
Sitting around the dinner table, we would look at our plates and look at each other, and look at our plates and look at one another, and smile. We made this and it is good!
Company. You can work in the garden alone and it is nice. But my favorite times are when we are all there together. Much more gardening gets done, and much more than just the gardening. Thinking back, I see Jordan, Kyra and me crouching around the strawberry bushes, desperately plucking out blades of grass. I see all seven of us weeding 100 feet of potatoes the day before Jordan’s surgery. I see us all pressing tiny flecks of earth into the ground.
Planting seeds, weeding and mulching, plucking and picking, we talk. The conversation rambles. Moments emerge and recede, leaving crystalline memories in their wake.
Adventure. There is no doubt about it. Every day in a garden is different. Every day some new challenge awaits—and some new reward. A crop needs picking. A weed needs a licking. A line of entwined tomato stakes tips over. The peas outgrow their trellis. The zucchini ripen all at once. The basket overflows.
There is always an opportunity—and a need—to think a new thought, make a new move, and feel your way to a new horizon.
Paradise. Is it an accident that so many images of heavenly places and spaces look like gardens? Living, fertile, nourishing—they have what we need in abundance. And not just in eatable form. Gardens offer the drama, the artistry, and the action, the luxury, the company and the adventure.
A healthy garden speaks. And as it does it says: There will be plenty. More will be given. You have what you need. Just begin!
What more could you want? Why not spend your free time in paradise?
It is getting cold now. We aren’t spending as much time in the garden, and when we do, it is usually only for a few minutes, to harvest. Just before dinner, I take a basket under my arm and climb the hill, seeing what there is for tonight. Kale and chard, broccoli and green beans, basil, pumpkins, and a lone round of cabbage still breathe heartily in the chilly air. I fill my basket and head down the hill.
Soon the garden will be dead. One more nice thing about a garden is that it gives you a break. It will be time to rest, to pull bags of frozen vegetables from our freezer, and to dream about what seeds we will plant in the year to come.