The work of gardening

For the first time in my life, I have my own garden. That is, my first garden larger than a recycling bin or whisky barrel. I have spent many hours caring for other people’s gardens, making and tending collective gardens, and, more recently, many hours writing about gardens, but this is the first time that I have land of my own to plant and care for. It is an exhilarating time of my life. Also a daunting time–how do I do this right? That is, how do I garden in such a way as to recognize and somehow make good on the privilege this land represents?

Perhaps it is not surprising that I find myself paralyzed by indecision in certain moments, or even that I should find ways to avoid working in the garden (that is, the area that will eventually be recognizable as a garden). Not because I don’t want to do it, but because there seems to be so much else to do. Gardening is what I do instead of watching tv, or reading a novel or going out for a drink with friends. In some ways, I find this is appropriate. We are living in times where there will never be enough time for all the things we should be doing. Increasing inequality, racism, environmental degradation, runaway corporate power–these facts of contemporary life demand our attention. Finding ways to contribute in some way to the struggle to make things better–or at least, to preserve the possibility that we might one day have the chance to do so–is an urgent problem of the everyday. On the other hand, how is it that filing my taxes on time, getting windows washed, purchasing birthday gifts or installing moth traps are items that reliably make it to the top of the list, and create a never-ending reserve of anxiety and/or guilt? Maybe this is what some gardeners mean when they say, ‘gardening is resistance‘.

Gardening as a leisure activity is not at all in line with my vision for a better future. If we saw and talked about the work of planting and caring for plants as vital and productive activities, then we might have the impetus to create more spaces for the pursuit of those activities by greater variety of people. Then we would have, not only more gardens, but more abundant and diverse green spaces. Even better, we might find the support to work together in their creation and care–at which point, gardening could become visible as a solution to some pretty big problems (e.g., food insecurity, social isolation, pollinator decline, biodiversity loss). Of course, particularly in times when social relations are so strongly structured by property ownership and economic competition, working cooperatively and inclusively, in a way that doesn’t burn people out or depend on temporary, outcome-oriented funding, takes a lot of time.

In fact, maybe it is less a question of finding time–as if all the other things did not have to be given up–and more of actively making the time in which to tend to plants and their environments. That is, for a start, by changing the things we give importance to on a daily basis. For example, can we consciously (and hopefully graciously) decline to do certain things, or at least, refuse their false urgency?  Rather than saying, ‘in an ideal world, I would have more time for gardening’, say ‘in an ideal world, I would get the windows washed, but for now it is more important to plant a pollinator garden, or talk to the neighbours about getting some fruit trees planted in the park.  There are some people who actually believe that clean windows are more important than pollinators or freely available fruit, but we might find that they are not so many, if we start putting our time where our hope, as opposed to our fear is.

In order to do that, some of us–those who are otherwise susceptible to pressures to be ‘good’ at tending to the status quo (in the realms of home ownership, personal finance, social norms etc.)–are going to need support in re-organizing the values and expectations that structure our lives. This is going to involve some apologies, and some difficult, politicized discussions.  The world needs our time and energy right now. Gardeners can make a substantial contribution to a lot of problems, but to do so we have to figure out how to turn gardening from an individualized leisure activity, into a collective work of cultivation and care. Its going to take practice.


Le jardin des nations, collective food garden in Sherbrooke, Quebec.


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