Returning from another work trip on late Friday afternoon, the first thing I did was to inspect the garden. Then I spent a couple of hours staking, clipping, weeding and generally puttering around. At one point, I asked myself: why am I doing this after being absent from home all week? More generally, why do I spend so much time as well as physical and mental effort on the garden?
I can think of a few reasons. There is a sense of contentment and tranquility that comes from observing either a single flower – or patchworks of color and texture that seem just right. The same feeling comes from watching a bumblebee climb in and out of the tubular flowers of smooth penstemon, or a monarch butterfly nectaring on purple coneflower, or goldfinches feeding on the ripe seeds of an anise hyssop.
Gardening is an assertion of influence on a small piece of the environment. That’s influence, not control. A wise gardener seeks to channel the elements of the garden’s environment – soil, plants, critters, weather – to produce a small community of beauty and abundance. Trying too hard to rigidly control the garden generally leads to results that are sterile – literally and figuratively – and dull.
Achieving the effect you want with the right mix of effort and letting things take their own course is tremendously satisfying. A wall covered with rich purple clematis, a flower bed that gradually rises from sprawling blue geranium to towering yellow cup plants, makes me feel that the world can be handled to create beautiful results.
Personally, I like a style of gardening that maximizes the quantity and variety of creatures in the garden. This world is full of malice, indifference, and selfishness, but a garden can be a small-scale exercise in altruism and benevolence that I find comforting. A healthy garden, of course, is full of carnage and predation mostly invisible to people, so you can easily overstate the benevolence aspect. But at least a garden can welcome many forms of life by providing easy access to those things which are necessary to survival.
The tactile quality of gardening is also very attractive. Like so many people, my work involves dealing with concepts, personalities, varying degrees of truthfulness, and, it must be said, a whole lot of bullshit. So it is a relief to leave that world and literally get my hands in the soil. This may be one reason I prefer not to wear gloves when I garden, though Judy complains I make a mess of the bathroom sink. Of course, in addition to touching things that are real, the senses of sight and smell are also gratified.
Finally, gardening helps me be more connected to my human community. I’ve gotten to know a number of neighbors (especially the dog walkers and those with small children) while gardening in the front yard. Without gardening, I’m sure that community connection would be greatly diminished. Some of the neighbors think my obsession is a little odd, but more often I hear expressions of admiration. At one point a neighbor waved at my front yard, bursting with the colors of mid-summer, and told me: “This is a joy!” Yes, that about sums it up.