by Jasun “Plaedo” Wellman: We gardeners often talk about what plants we would like to grow…
Rarely we ask, “What can the garden grow in us?”
I began my journey of learning to grow food as a broke post college graduate at the onset of the Great Recession. At the time, I viewed the garden purely as an object to help me save money by growing my own food. Little did I know the garden would grow in me.
It is kind of a miracle to plant a seed under dirt. First, you see nothing. And if you are like me, you experience a sense of worry, until one lucky morning, you go outside and see that a baby plant has emerged. Just as the seed has transformed into a plant, there is also an inner transformation that happens through gardening.
First, there was not much edible food growing in my garden. My carrot seeds never sprouted, my leafy greens were feeding more aphids and slugs than me, and my blueberry plant caught a disease. Needless to say, I did not save money. But the idea of gardening was slowly transforming my diet from fast food to eating more fruits and veggies.
The garden was giving me real, practical problems to solve, like, “Why isn’t this food growing?” There is also a physical side of gardening that I’ve now grown to appreciate. The simple rhythm of pruning, pulling, and planting has almost a hypnotic effect upon the mind.
When I’ve felt stressed and gone to the garden to pull weeds, by the time my garden plot was free from weeds, my mind was clear, too—and no longer hampered by the hamster wheel of anxiety.
In this stressful world we live in today—with too much information and false news—the garden provides a respite. The garden gives us a chance to gently work our bodies and calm our minds.
The garden whispers its wisdom through. If we listen to it, we learn that all things change in the persistence of impermanence:
Yesterday’s tomato seed becomes today’s glorious bush of tomatoes and tomorrow’s compost.
To be a good gardener, one must be the scale that balances between life and death.
To be successful and sustainable, a gardener must find ways, like composting, to give nutrition to the soil in return for that harvested tomato. Through this give and take, a gardener enters into a conversation with the natural world.
A good gardener is more like a community organizer than a dictator. A dictator imposes with their planting plan, applies synthetic pesticides, never gives space in the conversation, and kills the soil long-term. A community organizer listens to the garden, and then tries to guide the momentum of the conversation for the benefit of all.
A good gardener works with the unique resources and characteristics of the land: they appreciate the diversity nature offers. Dandelion and comfrey are considered weeds by many, but these “weeds” in my garden turn into a compost tea to fertilize the plants I’m growing.
Maybe a plot of soil is better suited for one plant over another. Or maybe that volunteer plant, that stubborn zucchini, really just needs to grow where it sprouted. Maybe it doesn’t—but it’s a conversation. So when the leaves fall, apply mulch. Through countless generations, nature has figured out some ingenious systems to support itself that we as humans need to learn from.
What if we use those lessons learned from the garden and apply them to the human world?
Gardening thus becomes an activity for reflecting on relationships. If you think about it, the success of a plant depends on what kind of soil it is in, what nutrients are available, how much light, water, and space it is getting, and what plants are around it. Which is to say, it depends on the nature of its relationships.
A healthy plant is the product of healthy relationships. Each plant has different needs it seeks from its relationships.
In an effort to remedy many of the world’s problems in a way that brings people together, my friends and I found a solution in gardening and formed the group called, “The Eugene Avant Gardeners.”
The idea of the group is to create a “farmily” in the garden—an established and sustainable food distribution network. The network is guided by the belief that healthy food is a human right for everyone and that the way we grow food matters.
We began to cultivate this volunteer-driven, nonprofit movement by hosting free workshops: we gave away veggies on street corners and in parks, made seed balls and zines and turned lawns into gardens.
Soon, we found that our little ragtag of gardeners, activists, and artists who accepted donations but never charged for the services, were actually part of a bigger ecology of gardening related organizations on similarly inspiring missions.
Along the way, there has, of course, been sources of conflict among our group. But through our collective care for the group experience, we have been able to work through our differences. There is a general sense that, at its root, the Avant Gardening experience is all about cultivating relationships.
Through the Avant Gardening experience, I, as well as many other volunteers, have become each other’s teachers and supporters. Whether it’s members coming together to share knowledge of how and when to properly prune an apple tree, or coming together to share resources such as seeds or tools, this process of sharing knowledge and resources has a tendency to uplift and empower us.
I’ve seen amazing things happen when people gather around the garden. I’ve seen the garden heal people. I’ve seen lonely people, traumatized people, and homeless people have their lives transformed. I’ve seen them find place, purpose, and pride through developing their skill of growing food.
It feels good to be able to feed yourself and it feels good to be able to feed another belly. It feels good to volunteer for a positive cause and to be able to see the difference you have made—even if it’s a humble pile of weeds you pulled.
More than once, I have seen groups of people spend hours doing mundane labor tasks at work parties, like breaking down brush, and then be slightly sad when the work party is over, because the experience was so good.
Often, volunteers, almost like bees, sink into a harmony with each other in their tasks. Strangers become friends, if only for a day. One moment names are exchanged, the next, stories are being told, someone has a song to share, a gardening tip is given, a recipe is received. Casually, we teach each other about gardening and life. Either way, this is how bonds between people, who might never cross paths otherwise, can form.
I truly believe we can use the garden to bring people from all walks of life, from all races, ages, genders, and classes together. Food is our common ground.
But it is hard work and you will have to get your hands dirty.
Luckily though, when we get our hands dirty in the soil, there is a microbe in the soil that sets off a chemical reaction that promotes serotonin. Serotonin helps us feel happy—even science is saying we should garden.
Grow food, because gardens improve community morale and decrease crime in areas near them.
Grow food, because gardens provide access to fresh food instead of industrial food. Gardens provide healthy nutrition in an age of diabetes and obesity related illnesses.
Grow food, because at least in my experience, getting my children involved in the garden is the easiest way to get my children to eat healthy vegetables.
Grow food, because people find more satisfaction in the food that they grow. I think you will agree, that the onions, spinach, and blueberries taste a little sweeter when you grow them yourself.
One of the great things about gardening is that anybody can do it.
Not a green thumb? Start with some non-fussy perennials, such as raspberries. Grow a potato, they are hardy and can tolerate your learning curve.
Have a short growing season? Luckily enough, there are plenty of cool season vegetables, such as beets, beans, peas, radishes, and cabbage to grow in those colder climates.
Don’t have much sun in your yard or live in an apartment? Try growing shade tolerant lettuces or a tomato on your patio. You could grow your culinary herbs on your windowsill. Imagine fresh basil for your pasta or cilantro on your taco. Or you could join a community garden.
If you feel really ambitious, you could even find an abandoned or neglected plot of land near you and start a community garden. You could talk to your property management company or the city about converting landscape into a garden. I’ve seen people ask and then be granted permission to create gardens this way. I’ve seen people not ask and plant a garden anyway!
Befriend the plants that thrive where you live. Where I’m from in Eugene, Oregon, kale is a key for local winter food resiliency. A few winters ago, we threw a Kale Festival. We had a concert of music and poetry celebrating kale, a kale cook off, and a workshop on growing kale.
To garden with friends is a good time and ultimately, gardening is good for the planet. Don’t let your gardening failures stop you. Don’t let the fact that you will probably still buy most of your food from the store stop you.
What matters most is that you plant something, that you attempt to grow some of your own food, and that perhaps you share that experience with another human being.
The garden will take care to grow the rest in time.