Category: Power and Empowerment

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.

Inside the Practice of Hope

Inside the Practice of Hope

solstice sunrise – Photograph © Colleen Watson-Turner

“The hopeful spirit transcends limitations.”

The life I want to live is a life in which I care for myself, I care for others, I care for the Earth. For this, I need to retain the hope that it is possible. A vision of the good. Having big questions is part of it. Always loving the mystery. Feeding my curiosity – freeing my imagination. Laughing and crying.

And here is the hard part. Pain, discouragement, despair are real. So hopefulness is a life’s work. The large hill to climb before the picnic , and then the next hill appears. And sometimes I feel I might not make it to the place where the water is –the place where of the full life resides and the day that Thoreau says will dawn to the soul that is awake. And that is a funny thing. I am too often awake, but in that other sense of not being asleep.

Hopefulness begins with a belief about myself. I learn this over and over. For example, insomnia is a experience that plagues me and many women I know. When the night of short sleeps pile up, I can feel despair. The need to overcome that sense of feeling helpless in the cycle of almost sleepless nights grows in me until finally I can say to myself, “I can handle this.” I know that this is the start of the practice of hopefulness–the belief that I will find a way to live with the experience of tiredness and the feelings that pervade the long, dark hours of the night.

To say, “I can handle this.” shifts the experience for me. My feelings become a little lighter. I am then more prepared to see symbols of hope in my present life. Walking to our biggest windows when I can’t sleep, I see the moon and, for some reason, this cheers me up. Sometimes I turn to the tall sturdy spruces to remember that life endures.

I have learned that my insomnia comes in cycles. I also sleep well for many weeks at a time. The hopeful spirit knows that change is a constant of life. The way things are can shift suddenly and unexpectedly from the outside. These shifts that we didn’t foresee are part of the reality that everything is connected to everything else. They mean that we don’t know what will happen next and that we are not in complete control. I find it heartening to know that change will happen. Sometimes I find out that what I was thinking of as bad turns out to be a good. My labels are most often not helpful.

And less this get too solemn or earnest, a tendency I have, humour brings hope. And feelings of gratitude cannot be forced – it’s hard to feel despair and gratitude at the same time. If someone can make me laugh, I am mightily blessed.If I can make myself laugh, or someone else laugh, I am doubly blessed. A crack in the wall where the light breaks through.

When my sources of meaning dim, I can usually just get outside, go for a walk along the river or around the block, deadhead a few flowers in the bed outside our condo building, and my spirits lighten. Getting outside is my most dependable source of renewal.

To say, “This happened to me” is a way to affirm experiences from my past as a step towards letting them go. To say, “This is happening to me” is a way to acknowledge an experience that is discouraging me.  Accepting my present circumstances — not to give up on them, but accepting them because they already exist, has been for me the first step in viewing my life more positively . Gratitude also grows from this seed. Fighting our present reality saps precious energy. To regain hopefulness, my experience has been that first I have to believe in myself, my strengths, creativity, ability to persevere. I remind myself I overcame challenges in the past. I remember that I have a support network.

I know that everyone on earth does not have the support system that I have.  When I am able to feel grateful for my own strengths , the support I receive, and for all that my life holds my soul feels more grounded and my spirit expands.

It helps me to be aware that any personal difficulties I face are part of a much larger source of pain which I call World Sorrow and Earth Lament. To find hopefulness in the midst of the cruelty and destructiveness of humans is the most difficult of all for me and I want to turn away from it. But I can’t. It seems to be there always as an almost imperceptible weight on my chest or in my heart. It is at the times when I feel like I can’t watch or listen to the news that I try to remember the courage of millions of people the world over.

the place of prayer beads – photograph, Jane Thurgood Sagal

I find hope in other people’s stories.  The ways that people under the most discouraging, dangerous, or pain-filled situations carry on with their lives moves me deeply.  The ways people maintain their sense of humour within a painful moment or repetitive days of struggle inspires me. The moral and physical courage of others can be a source of renewed hopefulness about the state of our world and an inspiration for my own actions when grayness descends. I have learned to remember the stories or the faces of courageous and compassionate others but not to use them to compare and criticize myself.

Hope comes from believing that small actions matter. John Tarrant wrote of this with tenderness.

The movements of compassion can be big enough to save rain forests, but intimacy also appears in the small acts that open infinitely large doors. Modest act of courage reverse evils before they grow great; small generosities welcome children to the world. Those who recognize their connection with others serve quietly, like members of a secret order. Then the small acts and the large coalesce (pp 139-140)

Throughout my teaching life I was inspired by the children I taught. I think of Laurie, a bright-eyed little girl in my grade one class who told me she was so happy that she was going to learn to tell time and understand clocks because then she could get herself to school on time. Laurie often come to school later in the morning when her struggling, single-parent mother did not wake up. Laurie told me that she would be able to get her little sisters up too and feed them before she came to school. All this, she said with a beaming face. Imagine.

Hope is real and necessary and for me it is foundational to creating a better life and a better world.