My gardens have been calling me lately. For years I gave up on them – the hostas, the shrubs, the berry bushes and the salsa garden – allowing frustration and depression to stomp all over my joy in the feel of good earth under my nails, and the delights of helping things grow. Plants ask very little of their tenders – some water when it’s hot and dry, a little pruning away of dead growth so that new, young sprouts have room – but even that was too much to ask of me for almost a decade. I withdrew from the earth, and from most people.
While the plants may not hold a grudge, some did give in to the neglect. The rhubarb that flourished in spring simply gave up a few years ago, even as the cuttings I had given to friends continued to thrive. The strawberries were buried under creeping groundcover, although I’ll occasionally still find the odd outcrop where it’s least expected, and sadly, quite likely to be accidentally mowed. The century rose, a beauty that now only exists as a cultivar, simply stopped making an effort, and quietly perished.
But most of the shrubs and bushes, bless ‘em, made it through, albeit begrudgingly, and muddled on, doing their survival thing. It’s been a long week of snipping and hard pruning, and will take at least another week to complete, but little by little, the gardens are returning to their natural beauty. I, however, am currently covered in ugly scratches and welts, nursing a few bug bites, and not much liking the discomfort of taking a poke in the eye from an ungrateful stem trimming.
Gardening is not for everyone. We may have once been a nation of “hewers of wood and drawers of water,” but nowadays, many people consider physical and menial labour demeaning, something to pawn off on the unskilled and unambitious, or to contract out to uniformed and franchised professionals. Actual farmers in Canada rely a great deal on machinery to keep their acres going.
Of course, every job requires some sort of skill, and good gardeners command a hefty price for their services. For a short while, many years ago, I worked as a professional ‘Plant Doctor,’ charged with tending to those forests of greenery downtown office buildings put in to seem eco-friendly. It was a good job, and I should have appreciated the opportunity, rather than thinking it just a way to make a few bucks until something better came along. After all, my father’s family were farmers in Alberta, so I suppose I’m genetically predisposed to understanding why and how to do gardeny things.
Gardening requires focus. I have always found a kind of primal joy in concentrating completely on one stalk, one stem, one leaf, studying the foliage for signs of disease, rejoicing in new buds, snipping carefully in the direction of the node to encourage growth. There’s also dismay in discovering that, despite appearances, there’s no trace of green left in a branch, no matter how far down you snip.
Some plants are vicious, armed with spurs and thorns that rip the skin, while others defend themselves with noxious scents. Many more are gentle, seeming to exist only to protect their future progeny. Some may surprise you; while trimming a rather ordinary looking gangly shrub, I was nearly overcome with an aroma so intoxicating I could only describe it as what I imagine the poppy field in the Wizard of Oz must have smelled like … dreamy, languorous, and utterly seductive.
There’s even joy in the inevitable aches and pains that hard work brings. Oh, you think, when did I stop using that particular muscle? Good to know it’s still there, even if cranky from being woken up! Bones and joints, lulled by the comforts of a winter indoors, creak a little, and sun-starved skin blushes if left uncovered too long.
And does anything taste more perfectly right than an ice cold drink at the end of an exhaustingly physical day? For me, it would preferably be a beer, guzzled straight from the can or bottle, holding the sweating tin or glass against your forehead between sips … that’s a little bit of heaven right there.
There’s so much righteousness in rinsing off the sweat of hard work done well in a cool shower on a hot day. Or of indulging in a lengthy soak in an Epsom salted bath that leeches the tired right out of your marrow; these are simple pleasures, gifts we give ourselves, payment for a job well done.
Gardening also takes you away from the banalities of social media, the bleating of commercial television, the door rapping of salesmen, religious proselytizers and those who want into your basement to read meters. I’ll only rarely even bring a radio out while I commune with nature, preferring to concentrate on the task at hand, while bits of summer songs play in my head. No people allowed, no spectators, no one to disturb a free flowing train of thought …
Even the drudgery of lawn mowing can be relieved – I used to drive my landscaping neighbour crazy with my erratic mower movements – though I called it ‘dancing.’ “NO, Roxanne,” he’d say, “THIS is the proper way to mow a lawn!” And then he’d demonstrate how to mow lovely straight lines on his impeccable, professionally grown lawn, completely unaware of his own little hip flips at the end of each track. It cannot be denied – the aroma of freshly mown grass lifts the spirits and frees even the most tightly wound.
Philosophically, good horticulture practice is less about mucking around in the mud, and more about re-establishing our connection with the planet, its bounties and its boundaries. We’re reminded forcibly that there is only so much of anything to go around, be it space, food, or water, and that sometimes a ruthless triage must be carried out, sacrificing a few to ensure survival of the many. Neglect may seem harmless for a time, but eventually, lack of care will take its toll, harming even the strongest, and slaying the weakest.
In nature, variation in colour is a cause for wonder – there’s a whole segment of the agricultural community that does nothing but dream up, crossbreed, and name new variants. Crossbreeding, whether done through serendipity or intentionally, most often creates a new hardiness in the plant, or fulfills a need we hadn’t yet known we’d had.
Some have a practical take on maintaining a garden, be they the stalwarts who continue to coax vines and stalks into existence as their parents did before them, or the grocery store gardener who just wants to get a break on the cost of tomatoes and herbs. For the price of a few seeds or a seedling, we become like minor gods, with the power of life and death over these potential lives. As pragmatic as patio or backyard farming may seem, we should never underestimate the simple joy of biting into a fat, ripe, sun heated, home grown tomato, or the satisfaction and pride of a successful fall harvest.
For you, for me, for plants, and for the planet – time always moves forward. There’s no going back and undoing what wasn’t done, no way to undo harm done by neglect or accident. Gardens remind us that, for everything, there is a season. And the season is always ‘now.’
(first published May 2016: bobsegarini.wordpress.com/2016/05/22/roxanne-tellier-back-to-the-garden/)