“He continued gardening at his desk. Not in the form of borders and beds, but in the form of paragraphs and pages. Row by row, he enjoyed the image of the writer being like a gardener.”
—Elke Von Radziewsky, Gardening in Tune with Nature
For a long time, when my husband would deadhead the flowers in our garden, I would feel this irrational urge to tell him to stop.
For those unfamiliar, deadheading is a pretty standard gardening task; the removal of faded, spent, or dead blooms from plants. It is both simple and necessary, something that helps flowers grow and multiply. When done often enough throughout the season, deadheading maintains appearance and enhances “performance”—insomuch as a plant “performs.”
But for some reason—perhaps because I am a novice gardener, but more likely because I’m a bit of a tenderheart—I hated watching these little massacres. The tiny beheadings would make me cringe, and I would see only violence where I should have seen potential.
I’ve never really been very good with change, and because of that deadheading began to feel like a hard but necessary lesson. As promised, in no time at all, the flowers flourished and the garden was robust, healthy, and bright with colour. Gerbera daisies, coneflowers, marigolds, black-eyed susans, and petunias.
I started to understand the necessity of letting go, one of the many lessons my pandemic garden was kind enough to teach me.
The current iteration of our humble garden mostly began in empty egg cartons in March 2020. During those early pandemic days, when we were still nervous to go to places like garden centres, we bought seeds and seedlings via the internet and had the various packets and packages delivered to our stoop. Wiping everything down with Lysol wipes before opening, we planted the spoils in carefully rationed curbside pick-up soil and then waited.
Part of the initial intention was to amuse our then house-bound two-year-old, growing things from seed being just one of the many toddler activities we embarked on to keep our family sane. (I glued so many googly eyes and painted so many rocks and pinecones during that time.) But gardens are of course more than mere activity, even more than just amusement, and I started to suspect that our kale, eggplants, tomatoes, basil, sage, rosemary, thyme, oregano, peppers, beets, raspberries, strawberries, zinias, lilies, hostas and wildflowers were teaching us something about life we hadn’t accessed before.
The Philosophy of Gardening explores this very suspicion. The slim collection of just over a dozen essays, edited by Blanka Stolz and translated from the original German by Karen Caruana, ruminates on the kind of education I gleaned from my own garden during such a difficult time. It is a book that asks the fundamental question of why the act is so important and what it provides, both to the individual and the collective.
In doing so, the book covers a lot of ground (yes, a gardening joke,) ranging from a historical look at public gardens, to the educational opportunities of community gardening, to the gender implications of digging in the dirt. There is even a charming exploration of something loftily referred to as “the metaphysics of the garden.”
“(B)eing able to take things into your own hands by creating a cycle—in which you use the soil from your worm composter to pot your plants and then harvest the food you’ve grown—is a valuable experience,” writes Judith Henning in the essay Urban Permaculture—City Gardening with a Hidden Agenda. “If we connect with natural cycles, and act in a networked, integrated way—as trivial and commonplace our own actions might be—it will signify a fundamental disalienation.”
For a long time now, my life has felt like it has been suspended in the “temporary.”
Four years ago I became pregnant with my daughter, which is very specific temporary state with a pretty firm end. Then, as a new mother on maternity leave, I felt like everything about myself, my identity, was on hold. Then, just when things felt ready to “begin” again for me, the pandemic arrived uninvited, putting not just my life but all of our lives on truly bizarre pause. Together we yearned for the end we were consistently promised, unsure of when that end would come and what it would look like.
Because I’ve now spent so much time in stasis, and have so much distance between now and “before,” I’m not really sure what I’m supposed to be going back to. I know that doesn’t make me unique, but it certainly does make me confused.
Constantly living life in what ifs and whens is a special kind of torture, one only survived by clawing for presence. Best to be in the moment, to enjoy what is in front of you—a garden for example. To observe its stages and phases without judgment, its way of disappearing and then coming back, its way of blooming and then fading without regret.
In the essay Learning by Digging—What You Can Learn from Community Gardening, Severin Halder asserts the educational and emotional benefits of the shared urban garden; “Even if the drive to garden varies greatly from person to person—it could be, for example, biographical, environmental, social, or pleasurable—urban community gardens form a particularly fertile environment for collective and creative learning”
I have learned that a garden is a beautiful whole constantly in partial transition. The tulips, lilacs, poppies, and lilies all have their own spectacular but brief windows, the herbs must be taken advantage of before their culinary potency aids blooms instead of meals, the weeds must be culled as not to choke out what has been deliberately planted. (And yes, I also can’t bear it when my husband tears out the weeds, going in with brutal precision, a pile of dismembered greenery in his wake.)
Even in peak season things are constantly appearing and disappearing, nothing in stasis, nothing fixed. As Elke von Radziewsky writes in the essay Gardening in Tune with Nature, “Nature is not a picture, it’s a process.”
July will be a time to harvest the peppers, the raspberries, the eggplants, the mint, and the basil. As I write this early in the month, the tomatoes are still green, but full of promise on the vine. There will be so many of them that I’ll have to dry a batch in the oven, will need to make a simple tomato salad with almost every meal, will share them with the same neighbours who sustained us through the pandemic. I’m looking forward to the abundance.
Now that it feels like we are finally reemerging, what identity can I claim? Who am I supposed to be now that I am so far away from who I was before this all began? Who are any of us supposed to be?
When I look out into my garden I realize it doesn’t care about these kinds of questions. The garden just gets on with it, moving forward in perfect progression. There is something comforting about that imperative for growth.
As Elke von Radziewsky writes in the essay Gardening in Tune with Nature, “the garden and its plants should teach us about life.” More than a year into unintentionally creating this place of education, my pandemic garden has become a reaffirming place; its tiny metaphors offering solace, its beauty refuge.
But perhaps the most vital life lesson my garden has imparted is that a necessary letting go of what came before can contribute to growth—robust, healthy, and bright with colour.
Book Therapy is a monthly column about how books have the capacity to help, heal, and change our lives for the better.
The views expressed by Open Book columnists are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
Stacey May Fowles is an award-winning journalist, novelist, and essayist whose bylines include The Globe and Mail, The National Post, BuzzFeed, Elle, Toronto Life, The Walrus, Vice, Hazlitt, Quill and Quire, and others. She is the author of the bestselling non-fiction collection Baseball Life Advice (McClelland and Stewart), and the co-editor of the recent anthology Whatever Gets You Through (Greystone).