“Ask What Your Garden Wants”

Great stuff as usual from my colleague & friend Mike Hoag, a fellow author and permaculture design professional. In a nutshell, instead of being so focused on what we want our gardens to grow, we should be asking what our gardens want to grow.

As Mike points out, the conventional approach to gardening tends to be performance-oriented. And often our gardens don’t meet our performance expectations: “Maybe the tomatoes are nagging you for water again, and the lettuce bed isn’t meeting your expectation to stay weed-free …”

The performance-focused mentality, says Mike, “is often a recipe for dissatisfaction, extra work, continued struggle, and poor performance. Because in a lot of cases, probably most cases, the garden doesn’t WANT to grow tomatoes. Maybe the soil, the sun, the groundhogs living under your porch have other ideas than just churning out tomatoes so you can pay your Netflix subscription. …

In contrast to the performance-based mentality, a permaculture-based approach is about developing a relationship with the land. This relationship, says Mike, can happen only “when we start listening to the feedback and trying to understand what THE SYSTEM wants. Maybe the sandy acidic soil is just completely wrong for an acre of tomatoes. Maybe the community doesn’t need another stand of heirloom tomatoes at the market. Maybe the family needs a more beautiful, lush environment to live and play in. Maybe we’d get more enjoyment out of a diverse ecosystem with room for the groundhogs and deer …”

Mike wraps up his post with a priceless suggestion: “So, has your garden been trying to tell you something and you just can’t take a hint? Maybe in 2023, take time to ask your garden what IT wants.”

Boy, has that lesson taken a long time to sink in with me! I feel like I’m finally getting it over the past year. For as long as I’ve actively gardened (which has been for maybe 18 years so far, in all different climates and spaces), I have rarely been successful in growing what I want to grow, particularly fruit trees and veggies. And I have perennially felt like a horrible failure in permie gardening circles.

More times than I care to admit, I have seen people’s Facebook photos of their perfect supermodel gardens busting out with fruits, vegetables; their homemade tinctures and oils and salads and boutique squash raviolis and other permaculture Martha Stewart things they whip up … and I want to be happy for them, but privately I am thinking, “I HATE YOU! What is WRONG with me???” I have even theorized that my relative inability to grow food is punishment for bad things I did in a past life. Maybe in some past incarnation I was really great at gardening, but hoarded all the food for myself. Maybe I was an evil duchess who tyrannized the people and brought about mass starvation. Sometimes I tell myself I’m just a fundamentally bad person who emits a toxic energy field, which plants can always pick up on even though some of my fellow humans might not see it.

(But at that point in my musings, rather than allow myself to go any further down the rabbit-hole, I remind myself that I’ve known many truly good people who were fellow plant-killers like myself.)

With wildflowers and native plants, I have had a bit better time than with food cultivars. But still, there’s definitely a sizable gap between what I plant in my yard, and what survives.

Say there are 1,000 plants in my yard (it might actually be closer to 10,000!). The plants you see are the 10 percent who managed to survive.

Over the past year, I’ve actually gotten a lot more laissez-faire in my relationship with plants. And, through various experiences (some moments of intuitive/divine guidance, plus some basic realtime observations of “Ya know, that plant just doesn’t want to grow in my yard“), I finally realized it’s perfectly OK that I’m not good at gardening!

And I have had such a sweet, lovely, liberating realization: All these years, while I’ve been trying with only very limited success to grow my gardens, my gardens have actually been trying to grow me! The trees and plants seem to be trying to tell me they want me to relax, and slow down, and have a lot more respect and appreciation for their unique beingness, and simply feel a lot more joy together with them. And breathe deeply, and learn — and the learning isn’t “learning how to grow food better” or “being better with plants.” It’s more like learning how to let go, learning how to trust, learning how to love. Definitely it’s about cultivating faith.

Also: my yard is a hands-on rainwater stewardship training ground.

And maybe most of all: My garden definitely wants to grow art and community. So far my most successful “crops” are my Little Free Library, and the benches I installed next to the sidewalk for anyone to sit on. Also the “Dog Bar,” a water-bowl I put at the corner and keep filled for the neighborhood furbabies. And my driveway, which I have turned into a sculpture garden of concrete chunks, rugged cacti, and found metalwork and figurines.

Who knows why some people have a green thumb while others of us don’t seem to. One thing I’m learning though, finally, is that gardens grow a lot more than plants.

Go here to read Mike’s post in its entirety. You definitely want to read the whole thing! (And, you might also want to take one of Mike’s classes, buy his books, engage his design services, or all of the above!)

As a bonus, this link doubles as your introduction to the Transformative Adventures group if you’re not already part of the beautiful community we are growing there.

Happy New Year everyone! May your dreams take root, grow, and blossom in 2023.