Gardening. It Can Change the World

I grew up with my hands in the dirt, gardening with my mum. School holidays, weekends, after school – it was just something I did. I never once considered it a valuable or valid career choice. There was no money involved, it wasn’t intellectually challenging, and it was darn hard work. Anyone could do it.

So I went university and studied writing. But the plants called me back. I studied landscape design. Not garden design of course. I was more than just a gardener. Oh, the delusions.

About five or six years ago I started thinking more about the relationship people have with the natural world. I knew deep down there was something really important in the act of gardening but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. I struggled to find writing about gardens that went much further than trends, design ideas, and horticultural advice.

I soon realised we’d somehow downgraded the garden to a purely horticultural, practical place. It was a place of often outsourced manual labour, an object of sorts, as opposed to a richly woven place of culture, contemplation, connection and learning.

It was reading American author Michael Pollan’s book Second Nature: A Gardeners Education that really helped galvanise my ideas about the importance of gardens. In it he writes of the garden as a place where the dialogue between humans and the natural world takes place. A place of conversation between nature and culture.

When viewed in this context things look rather different.

Suddenly a garden is not just a page filler at the back of a glossy magazine, or a war-ground between lawnmower and lawn, but a important site of exploration, contemplation, and change.

The more I explore, write, and ponder this topic the more I’m convinced of the simple and transformative power of gardens and gardening.

Humans and plants have been co-existing for many thousands of years, yet our relationship is rather strange. On the one hand, we all know deep down that plants and nature are incredibly important to our ongoing existence on a deep level. Nature sustains us, inspires us, and gives us hope.

On the other, our relationship is a very practical one. We need plants to survive. They feed, shelter, and heal us. It’s simple.

Given the above illustrations of the interconnectedness between people and plants, you’d think we’d revere and value them? This is a really important relationship! Right? Wrong.

For some reason, many western cultures are very good at devaluing human relationships with plants. Ignoring them, even. Remember the story of Noah and his Ark? He took two of every living thing, so the bible tells us. Every. Living. Thing. But no plants. Why? Cause they’re not quite living. Well, they are, but not in the way we are. So the plants, clearly, don’t matter as much as us. When things are perceived as not mattering, they’re treated as such.

Combine the not-quite-living-ness of plants, our cultural focus on quantifiability (which means the warm fuzzy biophilic stuff hardly counts), and our increasing disconnection from nature generally and you get what we’ve got now. A problem. We don’t value the natural world, and we need to.

This is where gardens come into the picture, as an important part of rebuilding our connection to the natural world.

This garden, though, is not some quarter acre suburban dream. It’s not grand, it’s not expensive, it’s not necessarily a designed space. It’s a balcony, a collection of pots on a window sill, it’s a small courtyard, a street garden, a public space.

The garden is a space defined not by it’s physicality but by the emotions it evokes and the connections it provokes. It’s simply nature touched by culture.

The act of gardening can change the way we relate to the world around us for the better. Gardening gives us perspective, teaches lessons of observation and value and, perhaps most importantly, inspires hope.

We all die. Humans are great at running from truth, but in the garden you can’t hide. Death, life, decay, vigour – it’s all there happening before our eyes.

Like very few other spaces, gardens are places where the real truths and mysteries of existence present themselves, if we let them.

“A person who undertakes to grow a garden at home (…) has set his mind decisively against what is wrong with us,” writes Wendell Berry in A Continuous Harmony: Essays Cultural and Agricultural. “He is helping himself in a way that dignifies him and that is rich in meaning and pleasure. But he is doing something else that is more important. He is making vital contact with the soil and the weather on which his life depends. He will no longer look upon the rain as a traffic impediment or the sun as a holiday decoration. And his sense of humanity’s dependence on the world will have grown precise enough, one would hope, to be politically clarifying and useful.”

A garden puts us in our place like no other. It reminds us we’re just a tiny little bit of silk in the grand spider-web of existence.

Observation & Value
Gardening teaches us observation. When we see, truly see the beauty and wonder of the natural world how can we not then value it? For example, when we grow our own food and see how much time and effort it takes to grow a basil plant, or a tomato, we gain an understanding of the true value of these plants – not the supermarket value, but the real value. We don’t waste them, we revere them. We savour them, we eat them with joy and thanks.

To improve our relationship with nature we need to begin by seeing and comprehending its true value. Only then can we start to see the bigger picture.

Only then we’ll realise that things like gold and fancy clothes are actually worthless. Water, bees, snails, weeds, these are worth more than all the gold in the world because without them there is no life.

The more we look, the more we see, and the best classroom for learning to see is the garden.

I watched a video recently about a flower seller in Aleppo, Syria. Regardless of the horrific war unfolding around him he continued selling plants because both he and his customers needed to find ways of cultivating hope in a place of terror. “For us making roundabouts beautiful gives meaning to life,” said one of the men buying plants from Abu Ward, the flower seller. “It motivates people. So we don’t only see destruction, but construction. We continue to live and rebuild that which has been destroyed.”

I can’t even begin to fathom what it means to cultivate hope in a place of such extreme violence and pain. But I do know that sometimes things feel precarious. Destruction is always hovering, looking for a way in. But hope is the trump card. Hope creates change, and hope is cultivated within a garden.

For me, it all comes down to this: Any act that connects us to the true nature of existence, connects us to our mortality, and highlights our absolute reliance on the world around us is something we should be taking very seriously indeed. Connecting to nature, through gardening, might just save us from ourselves.

“The gardens that have graced this mortal coil of ours are the best evidence of humanity’s reason for being on earth,” writes author and academic Robert Pogue Harrison in Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition. “Where history unleashes its destructive and annihilating forces, we must, if we are to preserve our sanity, to say nothing of our humanity, work against and in spite of them. We must seek out healing and redemptive forces and allow them to grow in us.”

We must cultivate our garden as though our life depends on it. Because it does.