Why Garden?

By Audrey Driscoll | June 22, 2016
Image by Audrey Driscoll
by Audrey Driscoll
June 22, 2016

Audrey Driscoll has been a gardener for more than 30 years, in Saskatchewan (Climate Zone 3) and since 1992 in Victoria, British Columbia (Zone 8). She negotiates with plants in a number of mixed borders on her 50 by 120 foot lot (which also contains a house, garage and paved areas). Her blog, helpfully called “Audrey Driscoll’s Blog,” may be found at www.audreydriscoll.com. In addition to Audrey’s opinions on a variety of garden issues (Norway Maples, tree roots, dry shade and a Newfoundland dog), information may be found there about her writing. She has written and published the four books of the Herbert West Series, about a physician who finds a way to revivify the dead, but who is himself transformed.

In winter, at the beginning of a new year, gardeners often make plans, think of improvements, dream of new projects and triumphs. We draw maps of perennial borders and vegetable plots. We make lists of plants, bulbs and seeds to acquire, and lists of tasks to be carried out.

But why do any of this? Why do we get excited about a pastime that involves moving yards of soil or mulch, chopping tree roots, excavating clay, raking up leaves and other plant debris? Why on earth do we choose to spend so much time on our knees or bent over, or balancing in unnatural positions while wrapping twine around stakes? What’s so rewarding about getting dirty, sweaty and achy?

Why garden? What’s the point?

There are probably as many answers as there are gardeners. Those with vegetable plots, berry patches or orchards would say it’s to produce their own food – the zero-mile diet. Many homeowners would declare that landscaping adds to the value of their property. Others would cite a desire to do away with the labor of maintaining the suburban lawn by replacing it with xeriscaping. Some may have been inspired by a fad such as “tropicalismo,” redecorating their yard like they did their living room. And parents may decide that showing their kids how to grow things is healthy and educational.

All of these are perfect reasons to start gardening, but to keep doing it year after year needs a powerful and compelling motivation. For competitive types, it might be a desire to grow a bigger pumpkin, or more tomatoes, or better strawberries. Masochists bitten by the gardening bug would just keep up their climate zone denial, trying yet again to grow palm trees or figs – or blue poppies (now there’s masochism!). Like farmers, gardeners live in “next year country.”

That’s why we have all those lists and plans. The visions behind them are often the best parts of gardening. Once a person starts having those visions and making those lists and plans they have crossed the line between people who do “yard work” and those for whom the act of gardening is an end in itself.

It happens like this. You do the things necessary to grow those petunias or string beans. You find yourself thinking about growing more stuff next year – a few perennials along with the annual bedding plants. Or some herbs to go with the vegetables. You start eyeing the lawn with an idea of digging some of it up so you have more room for garden projects.

Then one day, you run across a book someone has written about their garden, not a how-to-do-it manual, but a collection of experiences, thoughts, rants and ruminations. Reading it gives you the idea that this gardener is somehow different from you, even though they do their thing on a city lot about the same size as yours. They talk about plants you never heard of as though they’re old friends. They use Latin names and distinguish between cultivars. They know things. It’s as though they’re members of a secret society, one that you decide you want to be part of.

Instead of rushing through garden “chores” so you can go inside and watch TV or surf the net, you find yourself sneaking back out on summer evenings to do a bit more weeding. You discover that hand-clipping the grass along the edges of the beds is a kind of meditation, even if it does make your knees green and bumpy or damp and dirty. You find yourself using those Latin names; you know the difference between Liatris, Lychnis and Linaria. You make lists of plants that do well in dry or damp spots. You plan to install a pond, a paved path or a pergola.

One day you are in a garden center trying to track down a plant, and ask for it by its Latin name (hoping you’re pronouncing it correctly). Another customer overhears you and says something like, “Oh, don’t bother with that! I tried it three times and lost it every winter.” A conversation follows that leads to contacts with other gardeners. Divisions and cuttings are exchanged, and visits to other gardens.

You have arrived.

There is, of course, a downside. Your hands start to look older than the rest of you, even if you diligently wear gloves. Not everyone can relate to your obsession with mulching, watering or deadheading. Your spouse may actually want to do something other than help you strip sod from the lawn to extend a perennial border. There may be resentment that seed trays or little pots containing cuttings have taken over every sunny windowsill. Negotiations will be required, in which you explain that committing to a garden is very much like marriage.

But that’s small stuff, measured against the rewards that come from really engaging with a piece of ground and contributing to it your labour and sweat, your attention and creative energies. Because that’s what real gardening is, whether you’re growing raspberries, roses or minute alpine plants. The gardener comes to the ground of action with intentions, visions and goals, which are altered by the realities of the situation – soil, rainfall, frost, sun, shade, birds, bugs and beasts (otherwise known as Norway maples). The garden is created from that interaction, and even though the result is entirely different from the gardener’s vision, by the time it’s realized, the gardener is as rooted in that patch of earth as the plants she has nurtured. You learn your piece of ground, becoming intimate with what recurs there – budding, blooming fading. Birds become your familiars. You sit in the sun by the lavender and watch bees. Time goes by, your mind empties of racing thoughts, the earth turns and suddenly you realize you had better get on with whatever you were doing before someone comes looking for you.

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