Gardening lessons

I think it was anthropologist Mary Douglas who wrote, “dirt is matter out of place.” Such a pithy way of explaining the importance of cultural context in defining the boundaries between the pure and impure, the clean and unclean, and the ways whole societies organize themselves around those definitions. This is what came to mind as I contemplated weeds in my backyard garden. The previous owners had planted a native pollinator garden instead of grass. When we moved in, there were some things I could easily identify (irises, ferns), while others I had to use a plant app to learn about. Turns out “is this a weed?” is not a straightforward question. Rather, a weed is a plant out of place. No matter how desirable or beneficial, if it’s growing somewhere you don’t want it, it’s a weed.

Thus did I come to learn that wild columbine has delicate, bell-like flowers that bloom in early summer, but that it also grows prodigiously in every corner and crevice if you let it. White snakeroot is not only poisonous to most animals, but grows aggressively and, as I learned the hard way, will pop up everywhere because its seeds are dispersed so easily (weed!). I was determined to pull up as much as I had energy for, but then also read that its late summer blooms feed bees and butterflies when most other flowers have died (pollinator!). Common mugwort repels certain insects, has medicinal and spiritual properties, and is considered an invasive weed in certain regions. Including, perhaps, my yard. It spreads rhizomatically, its roots running horizontally for many feet, supporting new plants that push up past the inches of mulch I paid a lot of money to have laid down this year. Worried that it was choking off other plants, like the irises, wild indigo, camas, and foxglove beardtongue, I’ve been pulling up lots of mugwort.

As the garden becomes more legible to me, less an undifferentiated mass of greenery, more a map of different groups of plants fighting for territory, the more confident I feel in intervening. As I survey the yard, I notice how a plant must have migrated from one spot to another and I have to decide whether it belongs there. Some days, though, it still feels overwhelming – all the vegetation uncontained by mulch or borders or much of anything, a little sun and rain and they seem to grow inches overnight. What does nature care about human intention?

The first year in the house, I ignored much of the yard and focused my energies on the raised bed vegetable garden. It was thrilling when edible plants pushed through the dirt and grew and grew and flowered and fruited. But I wasn’t prepared for the voracious bunnies. They decimated my carrots, kale, and chard, as well as the bed of poppies, marigolds, and cosmos I’d planted from seeds my husband got for me as a Mother’s Day present. Their abundant round pea-sized droppings around the plant stems they’d chomped just added insult to injury.

This year, I was determined to protect the vegetables – I got chicken wire for the bunnies, neem oil and diatomaceous earth for insect pests. I made time to pick up the 10 gallons of free compost offered by the local composting service we pay for. I’m mulching, I’m weeding, I’m watering. I’ve picked up some useful tips here and there from various gardening Facebook groups. Things are growing more slowly than last year, but they’re growing. Right now, we have enough lettuce for several large salads! But sometimes, when I’m sweaty and my back is aching, I wonder if all this effort is worth it.

One day, I was working kind of slowly in the garden, taking lots of breaks, and feeling a little bad about the fact that I wasn’t getting more done. Because there was so much to do! Then, sitting on the ledge of a raised bed, listening to the birds calling to each other, it occurred to me that this line of thinking was silly. Feeling guilty about not getting enough work done on some imaginary timetable was the opposite of what gardening was supposed to be. Wasn’t the whole point to enjoy it, not have it be another thing to be stressed out about? The culture of work and productivity is so deeply embedded that it’s difficult to unlearn. The focus on goals and outcomes, timetables and plans, which dominates my working life, had seeped its way into my leisure time. So what if the garden is a little wild and overgrown? So what if I don’t finish every project I’ve started in a given year? If I wanted to enjoy not just the fruit, but the labor of my labors, then I had to embrace that resting is also part of gardening. In fact, even the sweaty work of pulling weeds should feel restful, a way to get out of my head and get my hands in the dirt.

In year two of amateur gardening, I’m learning that things will grow with or without me. I can participate with humility and pleasure or as if I’m mounting a (losing) battle against nature. I didn’t know that chives were a perennial whose green shoots would emerge even before the last frost. To find wild oregano outside of a garden bed was another welcome surprise. Sometimes, even as I’m pulling weeds from the tiniest cracks along the brick path, I’m impressed by their tenacity, their will to life. I’ve decided, then, to stick with my “plant some things and see what happens” approach and not worry over much about how things unfold. Slowly but surely, I’m finding my chill.


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