Let Experience be Your  Guide: Resolve to Start a Garden Journal

by Tom Spencer / Soul of the Garden


Forget the fancy English spades and Swiss pruners. One of the best tools a gardener can have is a garden journal. Several years ago, I shocked myself by actually keeping a New Year's resolution to start a journal. Now, I have dozens of entries that chronicle my stumbling passage down the garden path. The painful mistakes and bountiful rewards are all there for me to see, so this year I am going to let experience shape my resolutions. Resolve based on reflection is my motto.

All of our experiences, from the most mundane chores to those little flashes of enlightenment, linger and shine on the pages of our journals. Journals call on us to pay attention, an invaluable tool for both living and gardening. The more time I spend with my garden journal, the more that I realize that for me, gardening is a metaphor for living. When viewed this way, small things can hold big lessons. Lame Deer, a Native American holy man, said, "Life to us is a symbol to be lived." Our lives and our gardens fill up with little things to do; how we do them, and how we interpret them, determines whether they add up to "a symbol" worthy of living.

Weeding is highly symbolic activity. Like most other problems it is best to deal with weeds as soon as you spot them. When I read last year's journal, I remember the times I ignored a small patch of weeds only to turn around to find myself engulfed. Isn't that the way that life goes too? Weeding is a pain, I know that I would rather do almost anything but crawl around the garden grubbing for weeds. Pardon the pun, but it is beneath me, right? It is beneath you too, I'm sure. However, there can be no garden without weeding. No matter how elevated we may feel, there is no chore that is beneath us. In the words of the Zen master, "Before enlightenment, I chopped wood and carried water. After enlightenment, I chopped wood and carried water." The weeds that fill up our lives are always waiting for us to get down on our knees and pull. This year, I am resolved to pull more and bitch less.

One of the most practical lessons that I have learned this past year has to do with the importance of "planting with a plan." I have mouthed this phrase dozens of times in the past, but I never understood the real value of a thoughtfully considered design until we created our new garden this past year. When I read my journal, I realize that when we stuck with the plan, we succeeded; when we deviated, the results often fell flat. It makes me laugh when I remember how we painstakingly measured the planting beds, laying them out with string, while my geometry-challenged brain experienced a near meltdown. This year, as we begin to fill in around our trees and shrubs, I am resolved to plan the perennial beds just as carefully as those we created for the big structure plants, though, I vow, no more strings!

An even more important lesson culled from the pages of my journal is that life "goes free of plans." We may try to plan every detail of our gardens and our lives, but we have to accept the fact that, in the end, there are many things beyond our control. Last year, towards the end of the long summer drought, I grew desperate. I prayed for rain, ranted for it, and hunted for it on the weather radar. My frustration reminded me of a Japanese haiku that has long been a favorite of mine: Moon-gazing: Looking at it, it clouds over; not looking, it becomes clear. In my heat-induced, rain-deprived delirium, I rewrote it to read: Weather radar: Looking at it, it clouds over; outside, it becomes clear.

What was the answer to my prayers? A deluge; we received so much rain that I worried about the fish escaping from our pond and making a "free Willie" run down Shoal Creek. Locked inside, with my garden floating by the window, I searched for some words of wisdom or comfort about this cruel twist of fate. I pulled a book by Wendell Berry off its shelf and it opened to a poem titled "A Wet Time." That was worth a chuckle. In the poem, Berry describes a flood roaring through his Kentucky farm, where the "fields go free of plans" and, how when confronted by the full force of nature, our normally cunning hands "become obscure in their use, prehistoric." He describes a world literally turned upside down, with great forest trees setting out to sea.

A few days later, all of our lives went "free of plans." On September 11 we were reminded that there are times when we must put our plans aside and pay attention to something that we have taken for granted or had tried to ignore. I think we all felt the need for resolve in those horrible, world-turned-upside-down hours.

There has been much to reflect on in the past year and reading through my journal has helped me focus on the days ahead. Among this New Year's resolutions, I am promising myself some time where I let go of my chores and plans. There is time enough for chasing phantom rain clouds and cleaning up after floods. This year, I will try to find the time just to be with a garden that grows intertwined with memory.



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