• Hazelden Renewal Center

Gardening Lessons

garden with flowers

“My garden is my most beautiful masterpiece.” Claude Monet

I greet my overflowing garden each morning with amazement and humility.  My garden is a miniature paradise, the closest I get to being an artist.  In the garden I partner with the natural world, giving me a palette to experiment with wonder and delight, failure and recovery.

I learn so much in my garden.  The other day I removed two trees – one an elm, the other a cottonwood.  Lest you think I have been muscle building at the gym, they were seedlings – each standing about six inches above the ground in my flower bed. Recent rains made it easy to get their whole root, a single long growth with small hairs reaching outward. Cottonwoods and elms live on our block so it isn’t unusual for me to weed out their seedlings along with maples and a few gingkoes. Given this year’s downpour of elm seeds I predict more uprooting in my future.  It is so much easier at this stage than three years from now when their foothold is stronger.

Unhealthy habits are like my seedling trees, much easier to root out early before they deepen and spread.

The garden underscores the importance of boundaries. Take grass, for instance.  I like a lawn. It gives me a space for calm and it separates my several gardens. Grass spreads. That’s a great asset in the bare parts of my lawn, where the branching roots help fill in empty spots.

I don’t like it within the border of my vegetable garden, however. My grass doesn’t distinguish between where I want it and where I don’t. It’s like my coping skills – they worked well for years, even keeping me alive. For instance, I am very good at anticipating people’s needs before they tell me.  It was a great survival skill in my early family and it kept me safe.  I don’t need that skill anymore.  In my adult world people are very capable of stating their own needs.  I no longer have to anticipate them. By setting boundaries I can retire that coping skill.

I enhance my garden’s soil each spring with the compost I harvest from the round black bin where I deposited the peelings, stalks and stems of last summer’s good eating. Autumn’s leaves mix with banana peels, coffee grounds, peanut shells. The resulting rich humus contains just the nutrients my soil needs.

I have my personal compost, too. It holds my mistakes and failures. I see the time I passive- aggressively jabbed at someone because I chose not to address my anger in a direct manner.  Or the time I laughed at a friend’s mistake. Or when I turned my face away as someone was being hurt. It is ugly, messy and smelly, but if I turn it over regularly and notice my patterns I can use those experiences and learnings to build kinder ways of engaging with everyone I encounter. They become nutrients that support my healthy change and growth.

Young plants need attention and support. The sugar snap peas grow along make-shift fences I weave together with wooden stakes and slender bamboo poles, creating a framework for them to stretch closer to the sun. Their tendrils grab the horizontal prop. I have friends I call upon to support me when life is difficult, to give me a boost when I am feeling down, to listen when life appears overwhelming. The supportive social structures we create help us grow strong and confident.

My garden is a history book. I have my grandmother’s fern-leaf peony, the lemon day lilies that always bloom on my sister’s July birthday and the stepping-out irises my long dead mother shared 30 years ago. I still have a tenacious rose bush that came with the house. The lily-of-the-valley have been in three of my previous yards. My friend gifted me the very healthy clematis, good karma because at the time, I wasn’t very healthy.  My garden is filled with friends and family whose presence hovers like butterflies on a sunny afternoon.

Like life, the garden is full of successes and failures. Plants that need sun suffer with too much shade because of the health of the Red Bud tree that now shields the sun. Strong aggressive plants squeeze out slow growing ones. A polar vortex wipes out plants straddling our growing zone. Things change. We change.  What worked once may not work now. I learn and try again next year. I don’t perseverate and stew about my failures. I let go, dig up, move on to a new strategy.

Growing a garden teaches a lesson in cooperation and collaboration. I participate in the energy of life’s transformation. As raspberries bloom in early summer, bees drink from their tiny flowers, pollinating as they go.  Early spring when I turn the soil of my vegetable plot with my garden fork, robins hunt for fat juicy worms that loosen and fertilize the soil. Hostas shade the base of the clematis so that it gets the sun it needs without the roots drying out. My raspberries grow along the fence line with my neighbor. We each enjoy the berries and a chat as we pick, tell stories, catch up on news and share life’s bounty.

Abundance is a natural part of gardening, as anyone who has ever planted zucchini knows all too well!  Fruits and vegetables ripen all at once and we have more than enough to share.  Those first precious tomatoes are soon a burden of “what shall I do with all of these?”  We give them to neighbors, make pasta sauce to share with friends, offer them to passers-by. Gardening is a lesson in sharing.

My garden is a wonder in beauty and abundance. It is a reminder of all the ways to be community, to work together, to support each other.  It builds the gifts of patience and perseverance for when life is challenging.  Everything is better with sun, fresh air and a ripe tomato!  Happy Summer!


Mary Lou Logsdon provides spiritual direction and leads retreats in the Twin Cities.  She can be reached at logsdon.marylou@gmail.com.

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