Gardening is a practice, not just a hobby

How you garden is as individual, and as healing, as you exercise it to be

This morning, I rolled up the squeaky paneled garage door to turn on the hose for the garden and saw a familiar site: My middle-aged neighbor, wearing ear protection, trimming the edges of his always immaculate, unnaturally dark green lawn. Every other day, he’s out here on our quiet street in our quieter neighborhood, and I could swear he trims all the stray blades with toenail clippers when I’m not looking. The result is impressive, manicured, in control.

My first thought was that I didn’t see the joy in his frequent ritual. I did see a necessity: He runs his own lawncare business from his home, pulling an immaculate trailer filled with equipment behind his huge, heavy-duty, immaculate white Diesel truck. His lawn was his testimonial as much as it was part of his mental landscape. For me, the perfection of this lawn and the constant routine that produced it seemed as unfulfilling a life as Edward Scissorhands found in the monotonous sameness of the suburban neighborhood in his titular movie.

I went back to my own routine. I turned on the hose, ignoring its kinks and hues. It’s many colors because it’s a Bohemian work of hose art; every year I extend it by adding a hose as my garden grows. So, now it is the green of his lawn, mixed with the yellow of the dandelions I let sprout in my beds so I can collect the seeds. It is the yellow brown of the Cuban tree frogs that collect and sing on my porch. And, the holes and rents from careless lawnmower blades have been elevated with silver Duct tape, which in my mind is a form of Kintsugi, the Japanese art of mending broken vessels with gold, into works of great beauty meant to hold stories rather than more mundane things.

This photo, found on WIkipedia, is an example of Kitsugi, or “gold joinery.” The site attributes Ruthann Hurwitz/The Village Potter

In Kintsugi, pottery and glass cracks are sealed and joined and celebrated with gold. My hose is joined in silver shot through with funny stories of inept mowing, the memories of squealing children jumping through spray from random holes, and the tales of the inventive ways they went about trying to repair the holes – including with plastic grocery bags, masking tape, supple little hands and, before I could catch them, their mouths.

My water takes an interesting journey through a light-dappled tunnel before it gets to an ever-changing landscape of plants. Yet, it never goes to the same place because my garden is never the same. I feel the same when I walk into the backyard, rather than the front yard, each morning.

Today my growing garden is filled with five different types of Southern bean, eight of tomato, two of pumpkin and 100 of bug. Yesterdays before, there were wind-fallen kumquats, green onions, volunteer squash (from stray seeds in compost), well-fed mockingbirds and a long, handsome black racer snake.

Every day I add something, and I take something away, rarely in equal measure. One day I might plant a butterfly plant so another neighbor and I can enjoy it through our open fence. The next, I add marigolds to protect the Southern cowpeas that enrich the soil and produce copious amounts of Southern soul food. Other days, I remove with regret the spent cucumber vines, and spread their clean dead leaves on the base of an eggplant to keep its roots moist.

Most days, I take the scraps of a days’ worth of enjoyable meals, eaten with my daughters, and bury the lot so something new can grown in them when nature finishes alchemizing them into fertile earth.

For me, the organic nature of change in the garden echoes the everyday sorrows, joys, discoveries and little deaths in our lives, which are built on change, endings, beginnings, renewal and a never-ending diversity of experience. In my garden, as in my professions – writing and teaching – I have never been happy with routine and everyday sameness. This experience of transience and exquisite, temporary beauty brings me great joy.

That’s when it occurred to me that gardening is a practice for both my neighbor and myself, and like every practice – professional or spiritual – we each practice it in our own ways, ways that satisfy our deepest needs and longings.

I hardly know my neighbor. But watching him garden this morning – he would probably call it landscaping – finally helped me understand him a little. My longing is for richness, change, discovery and a life that allows freedom to explore, experiment and delight. For my neighbor, gardening must satisfy in him a need for control, orderliness, neatness, perfection and predictability. For both of us, these needs are as deeply rooted as anything we plant, care for, or guide to a certain result.

And while I doubt he and I will garden side by side any time in the near future – maybe later, life is unpredictable! – he taught me a very important lesson this morning. And for this, I’m grateful.

Gardening is healing, it is a practice, it is spiritual and it is incredibly individual.

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