Gardening is More Rewarding When You Grow Together

by Tom Spencer / Soul of the Garden

In my former garden, I played horticultural dictator. I was the undisputed tyrant of our condominium garden and folks learned not to mess with my creation. On occasion, someone would plant a tomato in the middle of my native perennial bed, or tuck a petunia in under the Japanese Maples, but these interlopers would vanish as mysteriously as they had appeared. Hey, I couldn't help it if death stalked the garden by night.

It is not completely true to say that I gardened alone, because, even if my work was largely a solitary endeavor, I was gardening for an audience. I lived for the ooohs and aaahs of visitors after they passed through our garden gate and, despite my tyrannical tendencies, I was attentive to the expectations and tastes of my neighbors. The garden was the meeting place and focus of our little building and I designed it to meet not only my needs as a gardener, but also, our needs as a community. Still, there was always a tension between my Zen like longing to be one with the garden and not being able to truly be alone in the garden. Gardeners need quiet 'face time' with our creations, we need to feel free just to be out there, doing nothing but communing. Our culture is not particularly well adapted to doing nothing, especially if you are doing nothing with an audience.

Last year, after our tiny condo had become too confining for two, my partner and I decided to move. He looked for houses, and I looked for yards that I could bend to my will. Finally, I could have the garden of my dreams- expansive and private. After a very short search, we found a place that we could call home and we transplanted ourselves in the literal blink of an eye. It has taken nearly a year, but now, our new yard has finally become our new garden. Old habits die hard, and once again I set out to be the backyard Bonaparte, but something profound happened along the way- the bones of the garden, the infrastructure and plantings, are nearly complete, yet, I can't call this new creation mine, instead, it is truly ours. Even more surprisingly, I find myself missing the little community that made up my audience.

Though we often think of gardening as a solo venture, I have learned that it truly is more rewarding to garden with others. In fact, I would add that we never truly garden alone, since gardening itself is an act of co-creation. The whole thing is a collaboration, Mother Nature may not demand a credit, but let's face it, she deserves one. Likewise, if you scratch below the surface of your passion for the garden you're likely to find roots stretching back to the gardeners who guided you along your way. Would I have become a gardener if my Dad hadn't planted lilacs, dogwoods, and roses in our yard, probably not.

When I was designing my new garden I asked some garden designers whose talents I respected for feedback, now when I walk along our paths I feel their influence. When it came time to choose the plants for my garden, I had years of advice from fellow gardeners to draw upon. Most interesting to me is that after completing my design I realized that I had instinctively created spaces not just for me, or my partner, but also for gatherings of friends. This is a garden for both meditation and socializing.

Our new neighborhood is filled with dedicated walkers, many off whom have expressed intense curiosity about the twelve enormous truck loads of compost, soil, rock, and crushed granite that have been dumped onto our front yard, only to disappear behind our back fence. I have happily invited them in to peek at our creation-in-progress. In a few days, we are going to have them over, along with some of our close friends, for a garden party and "blessing." The theme for our little celebration has some ancient roots- the Sabbath. In Old Testament Israel, the Sabbath was intended as "face time" with the sacred, it served as a reminder of individual and communal blessings as well as obligations. Not surprisingly, in our time, those who recognize the Sabbath tradition associate it with the activity of gathering for both worship and fellowship. For me the garden is a place of Sabbath, and as such, it both centers me and helps me to reach out.

So far, the most important socializing that has taken place in our garden has been the very act of its creation. My partner and I have hauled earth and compost, chipped rock, planted, tilled, watered, sweated, cursed, and laughed. Much like building a home, this act of co-creation has had many surprising rewards- he has discovered the gardener hidden within, and I have discovered that letting go of my desire for complete control of the garden is not such a bad thing. Heck, I even let him plant some tomatoes in a space I had reserved for native perennials! Such are the lessons of the growing together.

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