What the Garden Gives


I am writing this post in a time of pandemic.

The future is incredibly uncertain. It isn’t only that the global crisis of Covid-19 has revealed the uncertainty that always exists. Rather, the virus has really made the future much more unpredictable. How many will get sick? Will hospitals and health systems be able to cope? How long will children be out of school? What will the economic damage be, and how will that impact me and my family? No one knows the answers to these questions.

One thing I do in times of uncertainty is read. It isn’t always a helpful coping strategy, but sometimes it sends me in a good direction. For instance, I’ve lately been reading about ways to support and booster the immune system. Most of what the health experts have to say is predictable: eat a healthy and varied diet, drink plenty of water, manage stress, and try to stay well-rested. But two other points stood out to me:

  1. Vitamin D: Apparently, this sunshine-activated vitamin is a critical support for our immune systems. Reading about the importance of Vitamin D gave me one more reason to be thankful for my spring work of gardening. It also meant that the next time I went out to do some weeding, I did it in a tank top, despite the still-chilly breeze.
  2. Elderberry: (the photos of this native shrub are pictured above) Apparently, well-regarded studies have shown that elderberry can reduce the duration and severity of respiratory symptoms from the common cold. It isn’t known whether it will have any effect on the Corona virus, but reading about elderberry sent me to the spare freezer in my basement. Last summer, I harvested tiny, dark-purple elderberries from my yard for the first time. It was time-consuming (the berries are so small and ripe berries aren’t easy to separate from unripe green ones), but I stuck with it and froze quite a bit. But they’ve been sitting there in my freezer for months. This week, I finally pulled some of the berries out and made elderberry syrup. I boiled them down (it isn’t a good idea to eat uncooked elderberries), mashed them, strained them, added honey and cooked them down some more (there are quite a few recipes available online). The syrup is tart. I like it straight from a spoon, but my children will only eat it spooned into a glass of sparkling water.

We give and give and give to our gardens. Especially in spring.

This week, it was good for me to pause and reflect on two unexpected ways the garden gives back to me.

It’s the Work of Gardening That Matters Most

Our mild winter here at Maplehurst in Pennsylvania is giving way to an early spring. Which means–I already feel behind.

In my imagination other gardeners find nothing but peace and happiness in their gardens. I find those, too. At times. But I also find a great deal of worry, stress, and general rushing-around. That probably tells you more about me than my garden.

Today, one of the first days of the year when I was really back into my garden, I felt those old familiar feelings. There’s so much to do! I’ll never get to everything! Why is my garden so out of control?

It’s one thing to feel that way at the height of summer. It’s perhaps expected that we’ll feel that way once the weeds get well and truly going. But early March? When only the tips of a few tulips are poking out of the ground? Even I knew that my thought pattern was ridiculous. Keep going this way, I recognized, and I was in for months of stress rather than joy.

That’s when it hit me: if gardening was all about the outcome, then I would go on feeling frenzied and worried and rushed. Because the perfect garden of my dreams really is beyond my limited human capacity to create.

But does that mean there’s no point? That I should simply give up? Perhaps take up some less taxing hobby?

But no. I could never do that. I will go on gardening because deep down I know that it isn’t the final “product” that matters most. In fact, a garden is never final in any way because it changes with every passing moment. The light shifts. A breeze picks up. A petal drops.

Gardening is about the process. It’s about the journey. And truly, for me, it is all about the work. It’s the tending, the cultivating, the digging. It’s dirt under my nails, and aching muscles, and a chance to get out of my head and reconnect with the earth.

Gardens are wonderful. But gardening is a daily miracle.

What a gift.

Why I Garden

What is a garden? It is our beginning, and it is our end. We were always meant to be gardeners, to be caretakers of green and fruitful places. That we originate in Eden is a truth written in the DNA of our bodies as much as it is written in our souls. We are dust and dirt. In death, we return to the ground. But what of our souls? The heaven we anticipate is a paradise, a sheltered garden. That is what the ancient stories say.

Beginnings and endings are so well defined. So crisp and sharp, you could prick your finger on them and not even mind. But we live our lives in the middle, and the middle is so often a muddle of soft gray. Not sharp enough to cut, but so easily drained of color and life, I am sometimes tempted to lie down like Briar Rose and sleep my life away.

These are the months when I feel that temptation most acutely. These soft and soggy days of late winter. Whatever snow remains is more mud than crystal. The air isn’t cold enough to invigorate, but it isn’t warm enough to cheer, either. Last summer’s garden feels as long-ago and far-away as Eden. Perhaps I only dreamed those flowers.

I need something to light a fire under the lukewarm water of these days and my familiar, late-winter despondency. I need to live a chapter rooted in my beginning that grows like a green vine toward heaven. I need to make a garden. More than that: I need a flower garden.

It won’t be Eden, and it won’t be paradise, but on certain days and at certain moments (early June, golden hour, late September at sunrise after a rain) I’ll be sure that the garden of our beginning and our end has somehow drawn near, and Eden itself will glimmer just at the edge of sight.

Will beauty save the world? I don’t know, but year after year it saves me. In late-winter, my dream of a garden is the one thing that pulls me to my feet. I shrug off despair with every tiny seed dropped in a tray of soil. I hope for heaven—I do—but that is such a far-off hope. In a garden, memories of Eden and dreams of heaven mingle, and I am finally able to say with conviction: right here, right now, here in this middle place, all is well.

And, finally: I am rooted. I am at peace. I hold joy in dirt-stained hands.

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