Garden Variety Philosophy       



I’m relatively new to gardening, and like most people the idea of gardening conjures up numerous images. First of course is the image of an overflowing abundance of plants popping with vegetables, fruits and flowers. Secondly, tools come to mind: the shovel, the rake, the hoe, the tiller. And perhaps the shape and color of the garden: should it be square, circular, and what about the soil? What is humus? Gardeners such as myself probably spend hours contemplating odd things such as these and the seeds…the seeds. The spacing of the seeds seems to be all-important according to some books, and in others it is the soil that the seeds are planted in; raised beds, rows, grouping: the list goes on. Both the questions and the answers seem endless, but all I want to do is to plant a garden.

One of the activities of gardening that I simply do not like is the pulling up of seedlings that are un-needed, or deemed lesser. Somehow it seems that I am killing an innocent, but gardening is like that. Gardening seems like an innocent endeavor, but the details prove it to be otherwise. To be a gardener, one must be ruthless in a sense. But this ruthlessness seems out of place in an activity that seems so peaceful. To be a gardener one must be both a mother and a warlord.

I look at the garden in the winter, covered in leaves, mulch and manure with its light brown, dusky color and imagine its future. Then I remember the aphids and the beetles that I fought valiantly with the year before, losing battles while hoping to win the war. I like to think of the garden as a way of giving, of helping the world, and the earth itself; planting and eating my own food. But, I also demand of the soil to produce and tear at the earth with the tools of the trade leaving it brown and uncovered, only to cover it again with remnants of what I previously took from it.

Then Spring comes and a renewed belief that what I do is good. Watching the seeds germinate under the plant light, the warming mat keeping the tomatoes and peppers warm on cool nights. The plans are laid and the seeds bought, I feel the heavy load of work to come which is the love and loathing of gardening. Such a simple task gardening and one that is directly related to being human. The garden represents change and consistency, husbandry and freedom.

And so the garden is a dichotomy of terms and ideas. But there is an underlying foundation to all gardens and this has much to do with why we garden. People garden for different reasons, but somehow those different reasons are more similar than not: curiosity, the desire for independence, love of nature. One is not a gardener for long if one is not curious about the plants, the earth that they are planted in, and the correlations between all life including the garden itself. Most of us speak of our independence, but until you can feed yourself, your independence is an illusion. Also, while gardening seems to be a process that brings order to an otherwise un-orderly natural environment, gardening puts us in touch with that very nature: we get our hands dirty and learn what our precious plants need in order to give us what we desire.

There is so much in a garden, philosophically, physically, and psychologically. A garden can be conceptual, representing a form of beauty or utility; maybe both. Gardening is most definitely a physical thing that demands physical work. And a garden demands of the garden a certain presence of mind and a drive to perhaps complicate your life. A garden can also be poetic with running rhymes strewn throughout with symbols of pleasure.

I think that in the end what truly defines a gardener is the reason that we each do it. A garden symbolizes what we want from life and our willingness to work to get it. But in the end, to garden is to realize that we are part of the nature that unfortunately we have spent much time and energy alienated ourselves from. The reason, I believe, that we garden is that it gives us a sense of belonging to a world that is far greater than ourselves. Just like our civilizations and societies, a garden gives us the illusion of control. But, just like the plants in the garden, we grow, live and we die. The garden reminds us that that is life, and that we are simply part of that thing that we so often take for granted, all started from a seed and some soil.



  1. This is great, Mark. I really enjoyed your rumination on gardening, and the humility of the work, and also the pleasures of it all. It’s your best entry yet.

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