My Life with Gardens

My Life with Gardens

A garden is just a way of mapping the strengths and limitations of your personality onto the soil (Klinkenborg, 2002, p. 35).

This is a story about potatoes and flowers, degrees of coercion and choice, awareness of privilege, and food security.

My emotional history with gardening is a bit ragged. It started reluctantly. Nothing thins the gardening spirit like having a boss. In my case, it started with my father in charge. Dad loved to sit at the kitchen table and draw plans for the coming year’s garden. He used a slide rule. He liked the designs he created. He bought the seeds. Then my sisters and I were recruited to plant, weed, and pick.

We proved unsuitable for the job and the responsibilities we were given. We lacked exactitude and enthusiasm. We all had an aversion to worms and caterpillars; a fear of bees and wasps, and felt mosquito bites were a plague.  Precision was not a value we held, nor a talent we demonstrated. My least favourite task at the end of the season was picking the raspberries. Bees took the raspberry patch as their territory; thorns scratched our arms and legs. I did not want to eat the raspberries we picked. My aversion to finding caterpillars in the berries was so strong I did not want to examine them and certainly not eat them. I can hear in these words a tone of entitlement and it does not please me. Although most children, at least the fortunate ones, don’t think about the bigger world picture, my father tried to give us a social justice view.

At this point in my life, I ponder the idea that my father was offering us an opportunity to participate in something essential to human well being. Growing your own food for many is a necessity; for many a desire, yet an impossibility. For our family it was both a blessing in terms of lowering our food bill, and part of a vision of what a human life should include. My parents’ values, including their belief in having a strong social safety net that helped to care for those most in need, were not attached in my mind with any feeling of being lucky we had abundant vegetables. My dad admired Adelle Davis and her principals about gardening. Our closest neighbours were not pleased that he bought a hay bale and spread hay all over the garden to conserve moisture.Much of the hay ended in their yards.

It has taken me a long time to understand that despite my not particularly appreciating anything about the gardening tasks I was given as a child, some knowledge of gardening and values related to growing your own food remained. Seeds were sown then that helped turn me into a gardener later. I think they also have some part in the development of my present anger at the practices of agribusiness, and my understanding of the relationship between healthy soil that is available to everyone, and food security.


The next garden I tended was the one where my sombre and critical first husband was in charge. He had the larger say in what was to be planted. He also had a penchant for straight rows. Although a lot of the work of this substantial garden fell to me, it hardly ever seemed to meet my husband’s standards. I think my lack of feeling pleasure in this garden and its produce was again the matter of having little choice in what to grow, how to grow it, and even how to cook it, and preserve it. And being the object of my husband’s bad moods and disapproval coloured gardening grey for me. My husband had some virtues and many gifts but he was not a happy man and their seemed to be a kind of aura of dissatisfaction that hovered around him. Although he worked hard, every kind of work seemed to make him angry.

To be fair, there were some enjoyable tasks in those gardening years—some knowledge gained, and lasting skills attained. I got to choose flowers for the garden and I feel a kinship with flowers. My husband built the rock garden I wanted at the front of our house. Our daughter loved the flowers and peas from the pod, and eating raspberries. A new gardener was born.

I subscribed to a prairie gardening magazine and became interested in hardy plants. I learned a lot about gardening, especially the slow process of turning clay to good soil. But, the constraints and criticism of those years weighed heavily on my spirit and spoiled the pleasures I took in horticulture. If I had a choice, I felt I wouldn’t want my spring, summers, and falls to be taken up by a garden.


After that marriage ended, a funny thing happened. It was certainly time for a funny thing. I moved to a city where my children would be attending university. I bought a house—partly chosen for its good condition and partly for its fully-grassed and gardenless yard. A few weeks into the first spring, something came over me. Gradually feeling became conviction. I wanted a garden.

My son dug up a small rectangle of lawn. I sowed flower seeds. I planted a set of pinks as a border. A set of tomatoes towards the back.  I held my breath. I waited. This gardening mood remained. I was amused.

I was in charge. Not coerced. I didn’t develop a bad temper nor a tendency towards precision. The tomatoes didn’t care. And every home after that had a garden with potatoes, tomatoes, and floral displays. Every deck had flowers in pots. A proliferation of pots. It seemed I couldn’t abide summers without growing something. And no one was looking over my shoulder.

Stephanie Mills (2002) describes the gift of freedom in a way that captures some of the ways I felt. When gardening is chosen, I think it is as Mills says a way of being fully present. Her words on freedom ring true to me.

An archaic liberty such as the freedom to go for a swim, entrusting yourself to yourself, is a shaping kind of freedom, a kind of liberty critical to developing and sustaining one’s strength of person. To be fully present in the body and in the body of nature is an old, old, need.

And so it was. I needed to garden and the garden gave me back a self I felt more at home with. I knew I was a teacher and a mother by choice. I learned I was also a gardener.

I married again – a kind, funny, perceptive, man. By the time we bought our acreage that had been a farm field, I was onto the joys of garden design. I studied garden plans, discussed possibilities and drew a garden of walks and raised beds. It came into being with the help of my husband Dennis and in the pounding of long bolts into the railroad tides that held the soil of the raised beds, my son. The weeds flourished and so did the vegetables and flowers.

Over five years of drought, we planted trees and shrubs and hauled heavy black hoses closer to the trees to water, water, and water. I don’t remember that we minded the constancy of the work. It was ours. There was great satisfaction in the labour involved in turning fields into shelter, produce and flowers. The trees and garden were ours. Everything chosen. At times we had enough tomatoes to give a large box of them to the local food bank.

We no longer have a garden and my only plants are house plants in our apartment condo. I enjoy and learn from them. I feel all the gardens of my life were blessings in some way and I understand more now about hunger and poverty. My first husband lives in the country and continues to grow a garden with vegetables and perhaps zinnias which were a his favourite flower. He may still be a sombre man but I think something of his garden strengthens his spirit in some real way. I wish it so.

šThe list of lessons I learned from gardens is long. First, freedom is not another word for nothing left to lose. Freedom is grace. And having a garden is a privilege. Food security is an essential human need—one that we can fulfill if the will is there. A secure home of your own, however small, gives people a ground from which to become fully human and humane. And a garden is a blessing. I am convinced that forests are gardens and we need them and that there is room in the world for forests and grain and vegetable gardens.

Gardens contain relationships beyond our control and each plant’s way of being. They have their own sense of order. And gardens are endlessly entertaining. They helped me cultivate my sense of humour and grow in gratitude.

It can be amusing to notice and create names for the different weeds—the regulars and the never-seen-before-in-your garden weed. We had weeds at the acreage that I called “the weed of the month,” a testament to weeds having timetables of their own. And I learned how long I could stay at weeding without earning a back ache-a good thing to learn in life more generally.

The morning tour of the garden to see what flowers have blossomed over night and whether the green tomatoes are turning yellow is happiness felt and earned. And who could not enjoy the smell of tomato plants when you pull them up each fall, or the scent of wet soil after a rain? Or walking through the garden at night, star gazing and breathing in the heady perfume of evening scented stocks? And I can’t help indulging in metaphysical questions that gardens arouse like the meaning of green or where the first seed came from.


And another thing I learned is that once you have created a garden, choosing every plant in it—gardening because you want to, you experience a heightened pleasure in viewing and discussing gardens with other gardeners. This works best if no one involved feels like an expert.

And, if you have no regrets, the memories of gardens past are small and lasting sources of joy. Close your eyes, visualize, sniff, you are there again.

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