Audacious Gardening: On Daring to Care

I had a phone call the other day from an old acquaintance. We talked for a while about my work before he said, “You know, George, you’re really putting yourself out there. You are way out beyond the breakers.” The phrase—beyond the breakersis an Australian way of saying someone is existing on the edge of things; that they’re in risky territory, beyond the safety of the beach and the predictability of waves crashing on the shore.

It’s lonely out there, he told me, offering his support. I was grateful and surprised. I’d never really considered what I do, what I’m trying to do, as anything other than what I should, what I can. But I stopped for a while, and though a little more. Of course, it’s madness, this mission of mine to change the world through gardening. Of course, it’s seen as curious that I write of gardening as a counterforce to disconnect, a salve to the illusion of human separateness and control, and a path toward what it means to live a truly good life. Of course, it’s too naive to consider gardening as a tool to combat the increasingly obvious and dangerous effects of climate change.

I am used to being smiled upon and gently dismissed. Gardening is not valued, here and now. It’s a set of weekend tasks involving fighting with a lawn mower and terrorizing plants. It’s something people do when they retire. It’s practical not philosophical, physical not metaphysical. The minute the word is mentioned in semi-intellectual circles, eyes glaze over. Gardening is not something smart people discuss seriously.

I’m rarely the recipient of negativity, of course. Everyone smiles when I mention I write about gardens, that I am a gardener. “How lovely,” they say, seeing me as a simple and wholesome woman, secateurs fused to my right hand and fingernails permanently encrusted with soil. “Salt of the earth!” they suggest enthusiastically.

I smile outwardly, and inwardly too, telling myself they have no idea just how gritty this woman really is.

When I launched The Planthunter in 2013 I purposefully didn’t include the word garden in the title or the messaging. I wanted to be taken seriously and thought, rightly or wrongly, that if I used it people would judge the publication before they’d seen what it was actually about. It wasn’t about pruning roses or growing tomatoes. Both are excellent subjects, but I was, and still am, more interested in writing about the why than the how. And so, I put the word garden in a very small box on a dark shelf in the corner of the tool shed. It was a dirty word, in more ways than one.

My mission for The Planthunter (now Wonderground) was, and still is, to seduce people into falling in love with the world around them. Plants and gardens are an important, and often undervalued, gateway drug. Wonderground is a place of storytelling; of irreverence, intelligence, curiosity and connection. It draws equally from culture and horticulture, art and science, beauty and botany. It’s a garden, though it’s taken me a while to see this.

I can’t pinpoint when it was I realised it was time to reclaim the word garden. I can’t say when I decided to own it, to give it air and attention; to reimagine it. I do know, though, that my commitment to it grows with every news report of impending climate catastrophe, every new plant placed on an ever-expanding endangered species list, every time a politician justifies a project with potentially disastrous environmental outcomes as “good for the economy.” If our politicians spent more time with their hands in the soil, they might realise that an environmental disaster is a human disaster—they’re one and the same. Any one of us simple “salt-of-the-earth” types could tell our supposedly sophisticated leaders this.

I am a gardener. I can’t think of a more important responsibility. Gardening is not just a set of tasks. It’s not restricted to backyards, courtyards, balconies. It can, and should, happen anywhere, everywhere. Gardening is simply a framework for engagement with our world, grounded in care, action and intimacy with place. To garden is to care deeply, inclusively and audaciously for the world outside our homes and our heads. It’s a way of being that is intimately interwoven with the real truths of existence—not the things we’re told to value (money, status, ownership), but the things that actually matter (sustenance, perspective, beauty, connection, growth).

To be a gardener is to give a fuck. To be a gardener is to be invested in a place—to know it, to protect it, to be present to it. How can we protect and heal ourselves and our planet if we’re not willing to step into, and value, the role of the gardener?

Who will care? It’s a simple question, perhaps too simple to be taken seriously by those who consider themselves so. But at the same time, it’s too important to ignore.

I wade out into the ocean. The waves throw themselves at my ankles, frothing and splattering. After years of telling different publishers that I don’t want to make a garden book, I make a gardening book. It’s called The Planthunter: Truth, Beauty, Chaos, and Plants. And then, a few years later, I launch a print journal, Wonderground. It is my aim with all I do, from The Planthunter to Wonderground and into the future, to shift conversations about nature through story. To explore what it means to garden, which is to care. To grow a global forest of gardeners who are willing to stand tall—with the trees, the rivers, the snails, and shrubs—and say “We care. We are acting.”

I head further away from shore. The water is up to my hips, my waist, my shoulders. I dip my head under the waves and swim out toward the endlessness of the horizon. I float, laying on my back, rising and falling with each gentle pull of the moon on the water.

I float. I write. I garden. I care. I never thought I’d end up out this far, beyond the breakers, but I don’t know there’s anywhere else I can be. I’ve been told it’s lonely out here, but I’m not alone.

This is an edited and updated version of an essay originally published on the Powell’s Books blog (May 6, 2019), titled ‘Beyond the Breakers’.