Why do we Garden?

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.

The Penstemon digitalis ‘Husker Red’ is doing well this year.

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.

Zebra swallowtail nectaring on a purple coneflower.

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.

Ohio Spiderwort (Tradescantia ohioensis) is just starting to peak.

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.

Front yard, June 2, 2012.
Harebell (Campanula rotundifolia) is a native bellflower. It’s a low-growing, tough plant with delicate looking flowers. Only drawback is a tendency to sprawl.

25 Comments on “Why do we Garden?

  1. And gardening is cheaper than therapy! Thanks for the photo of ‘Husker Red’ – I bought one this year and now know what to expect.

  2. Pingback: Garden Blogs of the Month: June, 2012 « Jean's Garden

  3. Jason, I love this post. I, too, have had that experience of being away from home for a while and checking out the garden first thing on my return. I especially appreciated your distinction between influencing nature and trying to control it.

    Your blog is one of two that I am highlighting this month in my “Garden Blogs of the Month” feature. My post reviewing the blogs just went up, and I’ll be featuring your blog on my sidebar throughout the month.

    • Thank you, Jean, that is extremely flattering. I’ve thought a lot about why gardening provides so much solace, especially after experiencing difficulties and frustrations on the job. At the same time, I was really reluctant to actually publish this post. I repeatedly asked Judy if she thought it was pretentious, until she was thoroughly annoyed with me. So it means a lot to me that you enjoyed it.

  4. I see what you mean about blue flowers…you love them too! Thank you for stopping by and commenting on my blue flowers: bluestar and false blue indigo. My spiderwort is coming out now too, but it’s more of a purple than a blue. Cheers…Jason.

  5. Great post, and I can’t explain the mental and physical benefits of gardening but the bottom line is getting your hands in the soil and working with plants heals the soul.

  6. Congratulations on having this picked up by the Guardian. Very cool. I enjoyed reading this–am feeling a bit disconnected from my garden this year but I think today’s weather will give me a chance to rediscover its pleasure. Sun and temps in 70s. Susie

  7. I sometimes wonder which I like more, gardening or just enjoying the garden. If you had someone who would do all the work for you, would you just sit back and enjoy it?

    • Actually, I’m pretty confident that I would not want to delegate working on the garden to someone else. The hands on work makes it “my” garden, though there are times I wouldn’t mind an assistant.

  8. What a great post. I also prefer to work without gloves. Just like my mother who gave me my love for gardening. It is so satisfying, and so relaxing to putter around in the garden. Watching the butterflies and the bees. Listening to all the birds. I think my collegues and friends sometime think I´m a bit weird to spend so much time in the garden. But who cares 🙂

  9. I’m with you, Jason, but for a lot of people gardening is about control, so much so that it scares me at times. Our garden is the only piece of paradise we have left. I feel safe there and enjoy the creativity as well as being part of the cosmos.

  10. A very interesting post, Jason. I sometimes ask myself this question when I am tired and doing a boring, backbreaking and repetitive job. Why am I doing this? I think for most gardeners it is not a choice we make; it is a compulsion. I can’t remember much about Kant’ s Categorical Imperatives, and I don’t suppose gardening was one of them.. But it is for me. I can’t not do it. Even in other people’s gardens and parks I have to force myself not to pull out weeds. I don’t think it is a control thing. I think it is about wanting to create beauty.

  11. Congratulations! It’s a really great post, Jason. Very beautiful and it definitely hits home for me. There is nothing quite like the interaction, the communication you can have with your garden. And I know what you mean about not using gloves. I prefer to forgo them, but when the mud is thick or I’m dealing with clearing out plants with thorns or prickles, the gloves go back on. Manicures have never been my thing anyway. And I love your point about gardening being “an assertion of influence” rather than control. In gardening (as in much else) control is pretty much an illusion. : -)

  12. You captured the essence of the joy of gardening. I agree about the power of using all the senses, and seeing nature play out in a relatively benevolent setting. Beautiful shot of the tiger swallowtail! That’s the most common butterfly in my garden. I think they’re just as beautiful as monarchs. Love them both, though. Soon they’ll be back visiting us! 🙂

    • The swallowtails are only occasional visitors in my garden. I have lots of plants they like, but I have never seen a caterpillar.

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