Why do I garden? That is a question I’ve often asked myself, particularly in winter as I look out over the snow-swept landscape. I think of all the work involved—the seeds to start, the soil to work, the uncertainty of the Colorado weather—and wonder if I will do it all again this year.
That doubt lasts about five minutes and them I’m off planning my vegetable beds, filling the seedling trays with mix and ordering seeds—far too many seeds, at least 50 varieties. The seed catalog images and plant descriptions hypnotize me, and I have to try another heirloom tomato, an exotic Asian green, a brilliant zinnia. I know I don’t have the space for everything but that never stops me.
Those of us infected by the gardening bug are not completely rational—and I mean that in a good way. When it comes to growing things, we don’t have a choice; as soon as the soil thaws we have to get out there to dig and plant. If we hesitate, if other demands interfere, we are tortured by a nagging sense of unease; something fundamental is off kilter.
It’s not just that the season might get away from us or that we won’t have fresh spring salad on the table. We feel intuitively that we are neglecting a deep part of ourselves. That part keeps whispering: Are you fulfilling the bargain you made with your soil? Are you cultivating your inner gardener?
We do not garden solely with our heads, though it is often an exciting intellectual challenge. To be a real gardener is to invest the whole of our being—body, mind and heart—into nurturing one particular piece of the universe. That piece of ground becomes numinous, suffused with magic because we have put our selves and our life force into every particle of dirt. In tending the soil, we tend to our souls.
Soul-work is hard work. We may love our gardens with a deep and abiding passion, experience moments of inspiration, satisfaction and intense joy, but our gardens also force us to face the dark side. We can never be perfect gardeners with perfect gardens; nature will not allow us to completely have our own way. No matter how much we mulch, the weeds will grow; when a beloved tree or exotic plant dies from frost we are bound to feel sorrow. Gardening teaches us to be humble, to tolerate imperfection and loss; it trains us in self-acceptance.
Most of us are prone to gardener’s self-doubt. Our patch of ground never quite matches the luxuriant images in our minds. We visit other gardens and focus on the things that look wonderful, while in our own plot we see the mistakes and flaws. We believe our gardens should be suffused with light, perfectly groomed, verdant with growth, never a wilting plant or aphid in sight. Have we done enough to make the soil fertile? Did we forget to water at the right time? Should we plant seeds according to the phases of the moon? There is so much to learn and so many things that can go wrong. But there is one saving grace: we can always do better next year!
This gap between our aspirations and accomplishments is inevitable. The haunting image of garden perfection does not exist in reality: it is, as the great psychologist Carl Jung tells us, a product of our collective unconscious. The experiences of humankind over millennia have planted the Archetype of the Garden deep inside us. We feel the power of the archetype when silenced by a stunning vista, while enraptured by a flowering lily and when at peace in nature. As gardeners, we cannot but seek to create this primordial garden, a garden that exists in our souls but never quite manifests in outer reality.
The Bible tells us, “The Lord God planted a garden in Eden … (He) took the man and placed him in the Garden of Eden to till it and tend it.” This mythic story symbolizes the archetypal garden and offers a profound truth. Our task is not only to create beauty and fertility in our outer gardens; our true purpose is to to cultivate our inner natures.
I once asked my father what was his main reason for gardening at age 90. His reply surprised me: “I don’t garden for exercise. I love looking at the plants every day, watching the trees grow. There is always something different, always something slightly new. It may be slow but they are on the move all the time.” Working ever day on his rocky Irish landscape was, for him, not only an outer activity—it was about quiet enjoyment and contemplating the wonders of nature.
Whenever we stop to look at a blooming rosebud, whenever we take a few moments to sense the living world around us, we participate in the miracle of creation. Silently paying attention to our gardens is as beneficial as hours of meditation. Gardening requires dedication of body, heart and mind. Best of all it is deeply nurturing for our inner self. Gardening is soul-work.