People look at my gardens and comment on how much work it is. I cannot argue with that. Since I bought my first home in Florida in 2010, I’ve gardened more than I ever imagined I would. But I never actually thought about gardening until that point–despite having been raised by a mother who grew up on her grandfather’s Kentucky farm. She gardened in our suburban backyard my entire childhood, and we shared a plot with my aunt’s family, too. We always had fresh lettuce, spinach, kale, potatoes, carrots, tomatoes, beans, squash, peppers and corn. My mother canned a ton of vegetables, made fresh salads, salsa, soup, and steamed and casseroled vegetables.
Yet, I never bit the gardening bug until I had my home, a foreclosed house that had sat a year or more with its dead oak leaves and weeds and a few small, dead trees and shrubs. Even then I didn’t think about gardening much. Just cleaned up the debris and mowed the crabgrass.
Then, a close friend, who’d become a surrogate mother to me, died in 2011 within a few months of a cancer diagnosis. Her death jolted me exponentially with grief, triggering another sudden loss I’d had in 2004; that of my younger brother who’d died in a car accident.
So the digging began. The dirt silently took the beating as I pounded out my anger at losing two people who meant so much to me. Ripping roots and weeds with a pointed shovel or hand tool was a form of grief therapy, as with each break, I felt my heart sting with lost moments that had slipped through my fingers; All the things I could have said or done with these people I loved so deeply went unsaid and opportunities were suddenly and completely gone. All that shoveling, digging, pounding, bashing, ripping, cutting, barreling, pushing, pulling, and heaving was my desperate attempt to physically expunge my anger and shock.
So gardening began as a kind of therapy for me. The therapy continues and has also morphed into a kind of spiritual experience. It teaches me about the continuity of life and death, as sometimes plants don’t survive no matter how much you do for them, while others die back only to spring forward in later seasons with greater energy and growth.
As time passes, my garden view dazzles, excites and amazes me. Where death once had draped across my lawns in crisp, dead leaves and smothered organic life, where holes had been violently plunged into the dark, empty soil, now there is lush, green, yellow, pink and red foliage, mature plants that thrive and bloom unusual fruits, flowers that burst with vivid colors, climbing vines of rich, green leaves and a variety of bright blooms. A vibrant, moving canvas attracting brilliant red-topped woodpeckers, bluebirds, cardinals, hummingbirds, bold orange, white and black Monarchs, and rich blue, yellow and black swallowtail butterflies. My gardens have evolved into a world of natural wonder and visual fascination.
My time spent in my gardens is a walk through the path of my heart. A moment spent in the relentless spirit of nature awakens me to the reality that death is only one part of this cycle, and that from within the darkness of loss and memory there exists simultaneously a deeper connection to eternity. The bonds I have shared with my friend, my brother, father, and other lost dear friends are brought to life and respectfully, tenderly honored through my interactions with nature. Every seed I’ve planted carries on this spiritual relationship between myself and my lost loved ones.
There are more specific things shared between myself and those I’ve lost that directly relate to my gardening; a final conversation held with my brother about his love of the outdoors, words spoken over the phone by my father about how much he enjoyed seeing my gardens develop in my first home, memories of my late friend chatting about her own DIY outdoor projects. But the details don’t matter anymore to me so much as the feeling that I am somehow keeping hold of those threads of spiritual communication through my continual care and maintenance of my gardens. I am tending to my loved ones. I am tending to my heart. I am singing my song of gratitude for the gift of having them in my life for however long I’d had them.
When it rains, I both celebrate for the life of my plants and absorb the sadness from the cloudy skies. When a butterfly ecloses slightly imperfect or damaged, I’m moved both by tragedy as well as hope, as it fights to fly regardless of the difficulty. When a plant dries, fades and drops to its death, I experience frustration at my futile efforts to give it life, yet am emboldened by its contribution to the nourishment of the soil.
That is what gardening teaches me; that, in life, there is the same disarray of a diverse complex. There is despair, excitement, anger, depression, inspiration, hope, grief and unlimited joy concurrently with every experience, in every relationship, in every heart. Working in nature enlightens me to this intricacy through its cycles, seasons, relentless beauty and resulting spiritual rejuvenation. That is why gardening is less work to me than reward. As Theodore Roosevelt said, “Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty.”