In my corner of the world, flourishing gardens are a bold, lofty, and often, unrealistic idea. Because, deer.
I’ve essentially given up on the flower gardens that surround our home. There are approximately four varieties of plants that the deer won’t eat, and so, that is what I grow. A whole garden filled with boxwoods, lavender, and geranium-based plants. But my vegetable garden is worth fighting for.
For more than a decade, I’ve planted a vegetable garden each spring. It is guarded by seven-foot high fences to keep out the deer. But deer are not the only pests. In order to deter rabbits and raccoons, the bottom half of the fences are overlaid with orange netting that extends into the ground. It looks terrible, but it works. The garden contains raised beds with boards wide enough to perch on while I weed. Though I’ve attempted to thwart the pathway-weeds with landscape fabric, newspaper, mulch, and even gravel, the walkways refuse to remain level or tidy. (I get it, pathways. I don’t like to be contained either). The wood components are showing their age, with weathered posts and boards. The raised beds are no longer level because of frost heaves. In spite of the mess, it’s lovely to me.
This messy garden has produced beans, peas, beets, carrots, cucumbers, potatoes, greens, parsnips, zucchini, tomatoes, pumpkins, herbs, and more. As well has a primary harvest, we have also enjoyed by-products like pickled beets, salsa, relish, and zucchini muffins.
But it has given far more than healthy food for my family. It has provided years worth of memories with my children. It taught them that vegetables come from the earth, not from a grocery store. When they were little more than toddlers, I’d send them up to the garden with a bag to pick what they wanted for supper. It taught them to love food that they might have otherwise have despised, simply because they had harvested it themselves.
My garden has been a place of solitude where I’ve been able to think my thoughts. It’s been a place where I’ve escaped my own noisy head and connected with the earth. I can pull off fancy, but I’m a dirt girl. There is nothing quite like weeding and digging in soil to ground me.
Each spring, I have returned to my garden. I’ve pulled out weeds, replenished beds, bolstered fences, and nourished soil. Though a mammoth endeavour, it is immensely satisfying work.
Except…last spring, I didn’t even walk to our back field to look at it.
Though outwardly you might not have known, because I continued to smile, to work diligently, and to show up in my life, inside I was broken. For a number of significant reasons. Healing and restoration required most of my energy last year, and as a result, there were many elements of my life left unattended. Some parts were abandoned because I just could not. Others were fallow by choice. It was a time of necessary sabbatical (read this). I carefully decided what I would do, and possibly more importantly, what I would no longer do—or, at least, set aside for a time.
Some things had to go, and as I engaged sabbatical, I realized my vegetable garden was one of them. It was too much work, and I had too little reserve. I simply walked away, assuming it was forever.
I didn’t foresee that it would only be for a season. Retrospectively, I now understand that my garden needed to lie fallow. And so did I.
Some would define fallow as neglected and unproductive; vacant. In our culture, lack of productivity is considered failure, or wasteful. But farmers know that soil needs to be given rest. When we offer fields a reprieve from planting, it allows the soil to heal. The nutrients replenish and fertility returns.
This spring, I was ready to take back my garden.
It was overgrown and ugly. The fence posts were leaning in to the point that I couldn’t even walk down one side of the space. Frost had heaved the beds many inches above the ground. The soil was depleted, both from being washed away, and because it had been stolen for other uses. Some of the planter boxes had decayed and crumbled. My precious garden was in shambles.
I had to restore the fences and boxes, and re-establish pathways between planters. I had to work the rotting, organic matter of the last year into the soil. I had to weed, and decide what to plant.
And as I did the work, I became rapidly awake to the idea that the garden was a metaphor for me.
I restored fences.
For me, this meant, re-evaluating my boundaries. Boundaries are not to keep people out, but to indicate what is okay for me, and what is not. It’s not a means of controlling other people, it’s a way of caring for and loving one’s self.
Boundaries also allow us to redefine spaces. This is in, this is out. This lives inside my fences, and this stays on the outside. This is safe for me, and this is not. Establishing healthy boundaries gave me permission to spend more time alone, because as it turns out, I require lots of alone time.
You can have the best boundaries in the whole world, with seven-foot fences, and all the chicken-wire, but if you leave the gate wide open, even by accident (like I did the other night), damage can occur quickly. I went out in the morning, realizing I’d forgotten to clasp the gate after watering the evening before, and found that the tops of my beets were all gone (and I like to eat those!), as were many of my tomato plants.
If you know something or someone is going to come into your garden and trample your precious plants, you’re allowed to forbid it/them entrance. It’s not mean. It’s not paranoid. It’s healthy boundaries. Make sure fences are firm and your gate is closed when needed. You get to decide who and what has access.
I decided what to plant.
It’s my garden and I get to choose what grows there. I’m owning my own beliefs, likes and dislikes. Just because you love carrots, doesn’t mean I have to plant carrots in my garden. Just because you don’t like zucchini, doesn’t mean I can’t plant a whole bed of them. And guess what else, maybe I used to like growing potatoes, but now I don’t. I’m allowed to change my mind. No apologies.
Deciding what will grow in my garden means that I must then remember what I planted, so that I can easily identify intruders that have sprung up uninvited. Often, weeds mimic the plants they accompany. Sometimes they’re even pretty. And they are certainly persistent! Stay diligent. Do the work. Because they will deplete the soil of moisture and nutrients. They will choke out the healthy plants. They will sometimes grow up and cast shadow. We need to discern residents from squatters.
For me, this has looked like differentiating what I actually believe from ideas and thoughts passed on in childhood, or through my Evangelical church upbringing. What is true Truth, and what is human interpretation? What is actually important for my well-being, and what seeks only to control me?
I made the shit work for me.
Have you ever pondered the difference between poop and composted manure? Though essentially the same thing—digested-waste—one has been worked through, composted, and rendered useful. The other lays obscenely on the surface, stinking, and doing no one and no thing any good.
When hard things happen, we get to decide whether to be a victim, or make it valuable. We can’t always control crappy situations (ugh, terrible, unintentional pun), and we certainly can’t eliminate challenging issues entirely. But we can control how we respond to the situations and make them work for our benefit. We can smell like excrement and become a landmine for shoes OR we can do the work, till it down in, and allow it to enrich our soil.
No sane person would ever say that manure smells good. You’re allowed to turn up your nose, gag a little, and cringe. But then, put it to work. Even if it was meant for evil, we can use it to become rich soil for growing.
Let’s reframe the hard things. Instead of looking at it through the lens of “why is this happening? Why does everything happen to me?…whine, whine,” see it all as manure. It’s easy to be thankful for the beautiful things. But manure is a gift, too. It’s just in disguise.
For a whole year, I was fallow. But no more. I have found immense joy in reclaiming my garden—in reclaiming me.
Do not worry if your garden is in disrepair or has been fallow for too long. That place that has been neglected, depleted, abused, overgrown, unused, and ignored can grow new and healthy things. But personal growth and wholeness don’t happen by accident. Set your intention. Get to work.
I’ve often said that I gravitate toward people who have experienced pain; who have walked it out well. I prefer them. There is a quality to a person who has done the work. There is a presence to someone who has experienced hard things. It lends an authenticity and authority to their words. It gives you the sense that life can rattle their cage, and they’ll still thrive. It makes them feel safe and rich. It’s the kind of person I desire to be.
And so, this is the work. To repair our fences. To decide what is allowed to grow. To see manure as a gift. To reclaim our gardens.
Much love to you, fellow-gardeners.