Lessons From The Garden

By: Emily Weitz 
April 18, 2021

I make no claims to be an expert gardener. The following are not tips on how best to prune your roses, or tricks for keeping pests away. Rather, these seven lessons learned from the garden are as spiritual as they are practical. When practiced regularly, these teachings promise more than a bountiful harvest, they promise a healthy state of mind.

Lesson 1: Even though it seems like it should begin with the planting of a seed, it doesn’t. It begins with the clearing away.

When the first sunny days grace my windswept coastal town, I want to run outside with my seed packets and get to planting. However, there is much to do in the garden before anything new has a chance to grow. First, time must be spent pulling away the dead roots, last year’s forgotten shriveled tomatoes, and the heaps of fallen leaves that have blanketed the garden beds in winter’s sleep.

Before you can even begin to think about the future, you have to reckon with the past. There’s no use brainstorming all the things you want to accomplish in the coming year, if you haven’t addressed and worked through last year’s struggles.

It’s moments like this that link the garden and the fire. I haul heaps of dead roots, stems, and branches directly to the outdoor fire pit - one match and it all goes up in flames.

Now, to take this lesson and apply it to relationships that are no longer functioning healthily, or professional choices that have grown stale. Letting go of old habits allows you to evolve as your life inevitably changes. So, don’t be afraid to take a match to the dried-out pieces of your life. Once they’re cleared away, there will be room to grow.

Lesson 2: Allow space for emptiness.

Once clearance has taken place, it’s tempting to immediately try to fill that space. I have killed more tomatoes than I care to mention, because I just couldn’t wait to get them into the garden bed. This year, however, I am enjoying letting the soil sit. The sunshine of early springtime feeds the compost that I slowly rake into the soil. Micro-organisms do their work, even as the surface of the garden looks still.

It’s in this stillness that new life begins to sprout. Surprises I didn’t know were there, like a dozen baby kale plants that grew from last year’s fallen seed pods, make their way to the surface.

If I had rushed into digging up the ground to plant new seeds, not only would the seeds have failed, I also would have disturbed what was already there, thereby preventing it finding its own natural way to the sun.

With patience, new ideas have the opportunity to rise to the surface. So, instead of rushing to fill the space, let there be space. You may find that what grows in that space, is exactly what was meant to be there. Whether that’s a kale plant or a revelation.

Lesson 3: Accept help and be humble.

Time and time again, I’ve saved plastic egg containers and started seeds in early springtime. Of all those efforts, how many have actually translated into a juicy bite of something sweet? A minute fraction.

This year, I am going to my favorite garden center, and having a conversation with the kindly man who’s spent his life in a greenhouse. I’ll buy 6-inch tall seedlings that have been nurtured by masters. I’ll plant them, hardy stems and strong roots, in my well-rested garden beds.

We don’t all have to be experts in everything. I am not a master gardener, but that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy the process. Perhaps part of the process isn’t just the plants I grow, but the bonds I develop in the community by listening and learning.

Lesson 4: Connect by disconnecting

One year, I went to a garlic planting festival where we sang work songs while we planted. I caught sight of a young woman, barefoot in the earth. I watched how she rocked onto the balls of her feet, and then back onto her heels. She was growing more and more connected to the earth, reaping the benefits of the garden from the ground-up into her body.

I love spending time in the garden barefoot. Feeling the soft earth beneath my feet, reminds me that I am connected to something much bigger than myself.

Squatting down into the garden is a deep stretch for the hips, and allows me to get closer to the earth, and to myself. Physically connecting to the natural world is healing on so many levels. Whether you’re massaging ancient clay into your face, or letting your feet sink into soil, that connection is the perfect antidote to life in the digital age.

little girl gardening

Lesson 5: Weeding is a daily practice.

Once your garden starts to grow, so too will the weeds. Every day I go out into the garden to tend to them and keep my plants healthy. Weeds crop up like unproductive thoughts, stealing nutrients from the vegetables and flowers that you really want to thrive. Just as you pull out weeds before they become destructive, you can tend to the thoughts in your mind.

For example, thoughts of jealousy can materialize - small and seemingly harmless enough. Left unchecked, however, jealousy can grow so unwieldy that it dominates your headspace, damages your own feelings of self-worth and distracts you from your goals.

Just as you squat over your garden bed and pull out the weeds, sit in meditation and notice the thoughts. Notice which thoughts are healthy and productive those that have the potential, if fed and tended to, to grow into beautiful blossoms and fruits. Be aware of the negative thoughts that take energy and attention away from your goals. Pluck them out, like weeds, every day, before they have a chance to grow.

Lesson 6: Savor the sweetness

I’m not the only one watching my strawberry patch for that perfect moment. There have been many seasons when I’ve watched delicate white flowers give way to tiny pale strawberries, which darken with the lengthening days of sunshine. Then, just at the moment when the first strawberry hangs red in the patch, some little creature finds a way in and snatches it away.

I’ve laid my ground cover and hung my nets, working to protect the strawberries from other hungry creatures above and below. All the more reason that when I get to take that first bite of late springtime, the red juice lingers on my tongue, and I close my eyes to savor its sweetness. When you put your time and energy into something, the reward is so much deeper.

This applies to everything in life. As we emerge from The Long Sleep of 2020/2021, it would be tempting to jump back into the way things were, but we have an opportunity. We made sacrifices and we waited so long. So, the first time you get to hug your grandchild, or your mother, or your oldest friend, hold tight. Bring champagne to that first barbecue and raise a glass. Savor the sweetness of each moment before it passes.

Lesson 7: Abundance is meant to be shared.

When a crop thrives, it usually thrives more than you can even handle. Whether it’s husk cherries or cucumbers, when I’ve had a successful crop, there’s always been too much to keep to myself. One of the great joys of gardening is sharing that abundance. I’ll load my children up with bunches of fresh basil to deliver to neighbors up and down the street. The sense of community and goodwill around a garden is incomparable.

The same is true with happiness, love, peace, and success. As you work to cultivate a sense of abundance, it grows and touches more people. The more you love, the more love you share. The more you find peace, the more your presence will bring peace to others. The more joyful and celebratory you are, the more people will feel joyful around you; and the more success you find, the more you’ll be able to lift up others.

So, to recap:

Clear away what’s stale. Be patient and allow for moments of emptiness. Notice and welcome new ideas and let them grow. Accept help and be willing to learn. Disconnect to connect. Tend to your garden, so it doesn’t get overrun with weeds. Savor the first strawberries of springtime and, most importantly, share the love.

Emily Weitz

Emily Weitz is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Vice, and Longreads, among other publications. From her airstream trailer in Sag Harbor, NY, she attempts to stay connected to the big big world by teaching yoga, playing music, and helping to run a small non-profit in Uganda. She is currently working on a collection of essays. Follow her on Twitter @emilyjweitz.