Middle age is great fun. I’m constantly amused at how much time I spent during the first half of my life being ineffective. I’ve had heartfelt intentions, goals and plans and I’ve worked hard, but I’ve never understood a thing about simply letting life be. I know all about discipline and almost nothing about surrendering to the natural flow of anything, including myself.
A few months ago I read an article about what makes plants happy. It was a revelation.
I call myself a gardener. During some periods I grew most of my own vegetables and herbs. It was a lot of work. In Colorado, water was always a problem, and in my rural gardens deer were a constant threat. Keeping a garden weeded, mulched and watered, along with raising two little boys, working, and running a household on a shoestring, was quite a challenge. I thought I knew a lot about gardening.
Here in Maine I don’t garden. We don’t have dedicated garden space protected from the deer, for one thing. For another, my diet has changed and I mostly eat meat now. I’m also older, my knees complain bitterly if I spend a lot of time kneeling, and my body does not want to bend over in a garden every day.
On the other hand, we probably have thirty or more apple trees, wild raspberries (red and black), wild strawberries, highbush cranberries, blueberries, elderberries, roses, an ancient and persistent grapevine of unknown variety, sugar maples, pear trees and nut trees spread out across our land. The whole place is a garden.
We also have a short hedge of beach roses, thickly thorned and tough, running right along the road on the east side of the house. It gets the snowplow drifts of snow, ice and sand in the winter and the heat, exhaust and sometimes trash of every passing vehicle in the summer. I couldn’t kill them with an axe. It’s not a tall hedge, but it blooms pink in the spring and provides a small barrier between the house and the traffic. In this season it’s loaded with fat red round rose hips.
In the spring, we saw a lot of dead wood in the rose hedge and we began to give it a heavy pruning. It had been neglected for years, and I was certain it would come back, thicker and healthier than ever. It was miserable to work on because the thorns, though short, are numerous and tough, and defy the heaviest work gloves. We got about halfway through the task and then Spring caught us up, along with many other projects, and we never finished pruning the hedge. I raked up what we did take out, pitched the debris over a bank so the thorns were out of the way, and did nothing else for it. The denuded hedge looked spiky and ugly until it leafed out.
In the ensuing months I’ve watched that hedge bloom as usual with its bright pink flowers. One day I saw wild buttercup was also blooming in the places we’d pruned. Wild violets crept around the edges. Yellow hawkweed moved in. After the buttercups came white and yellow daisies. Then a froth of Queen Anne’s Lace draped around it, and tall purple clover beckoned the wild bees. As those faded, I recognized goldenrod and wild asters beginning to grow. Every couple of weeks my partner mows between the hedge and the house. That’s the only care and attention it ever gets.
Wildflowers have bloomed, each in their season, mingling with the roses, all summer and fall. Now there’s a foam of purple and white wild aster and the roses are blooming for a second time, mingling with hips. The hedge is a riot of color.
This takes me back to the article I mentioned about what makes plants happy.
The article points out that plants grow in the wild according to their evolution, needs and contribution in a system. Some plants are tall and grow in isolation. Others are immensely social and form clumps or swathes. Some plants like to creep along the ground and grow low. Others are quite high and grow with tall grasses because they need the support of the surrounding stems. Look at a natural meadow or field in summer that hasn’t been grazed or recently mown, and you’ll see a system of plants and grasses growing together with no input from humans. There are no bare places that need to be mulched. Nobody comes along and dead heads and tidies things up. As flowers fade and plants die, or are fed on, vegetable matter and seeds fall to the ground and become food or sprout into the next generation of plants. The meadow or field, if healthy, will have a full complement of insects, birds and small rodents present, and so on, up the food chain.
Okay, you get the picture. Biology 101, right? But that’s not a garden.
A garden is where we prepare the ground by banishing “weeds;” amend, dig and turn the soil by exposing it and sterilizing it and wearing out our backs; spend money protecting the area with fences, animal repellents, insecticides and herbicides; buy bags and bags of expensive manure, peat, top soil and mulching materials; spend more money buying plants, often without particular regard to whether they’re native to our area and with no idea or interest in how they grow in the wild; and plant them in solitary confinement, carefully spacing them out in sad little oases amid the mulch. We do not give them appropriate companions or communities, allow them to build a family around themselves or allow them to make the contributions they were evolved to make to other plants and wildlife.
We hold gardens to our own standards of neatness, cleanliness, obedience and beauty. We cut and tidy away brown leaves and spent blossoms lest they offend the eye, never imagining we’re depriving our plants of the free food they were evolved to need. We plant to please our color and variety preferences, never asking ourselves or bothering to find out what those particular plants need in order to be happy. We never imagine ourselves a shrew, or a chipmunk, or a grasshopper, and it doesn’t occur to us to lie on the ground with our chins in the dirt and appreciate the complex layers of plant life covering it. The only view we consider is the one from above, and the only layer we see from that vantage point is the top one.
That’s what we call a garden. Isn’t it beautiful?
We humans have an incorrigible, idiotic kind of blind arrogance, myself included. I confess I never once thought about observing how Nature gardens and modeling my gardens on hers. Not once. Yet Earth has survived for millions of years, creating rich, self-sustaining forests, swamps, grasslands and other habitats without the interference of human beings. We don’t think about the plants’ point of view, though. We come along, wear out our bodies, spend money, try to reinvent elegant and sustainable life systems and wonder why gardens don’t thrive.
I’ve been thinking about this article about what makes plants happy for months, and watching our little rose hedge. As we move into fall, I spend a certain amount of time pruning away dead wood and crowded saplings in many different places. We’ve cut a couple of old and dangerous trees. As I work, I carefully lay all the debris at the base of the plants I’m working on. I don’t uproot things. I don’t disturb the soil or the layer of wet rotting leaves on the forest floor. I cherish the sight of mushrooms growing everywhere, because I know they signal a healthy mycelium net underground, serving every plant and tree on the place and beyond. Apples and berries fall and rot where they lay, sinking back into the ever-richer earth. I notice how the wildflowers grow and spread and who they grow and bloom with. I’m making friends with the low ground-covering plants: Wild chamomile, wild strawberry, white clover, wild basil with its purple flowers, the sweet little violets and rabbit’s foot clover.
Unless in our way, we let trees lie as they fall and rot over time. We run the mower over autumn leaves and let them lie. We carefully stake volunteer or rodent-planted saplings to avoid mowing them, so the next generation of black walnut, maple, oak and beech can grow. We leave the tent caterpillars alone, because they provide food for birds, bears and other creatures.
I realize now all my neat gardening was driven by perfectionism, by a desire to feel in control, and by a need to please the eye of myself and others. I invested a lot of sweat equity in trying to garden “right” without ever questioning what that really meant. I made it much, much harder and more expensive than it ever needed to be.
It’s worth noting this is exactly the way I treat myself.
The rose hedge reanimated itself. It grows in the most inhospitable area of the whole place, but it knew just what to do. I stood back, let it alone and marveled.
You know what? I take it back. I’m not a gardener. But I do humbly enjoy a 26-acre garden.
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