The past few months have given us more time than usual to contemplate, evaluate and wonder. I’ve spent as much of that time as I could outdoors because it is nicer out there than it in front of the news or cleaning out the closets.
As a result of this time, I’ve come to some conclusions. An important one is that everything I need to know, I learned in the garden. A popular book says we learn it all in kindergarten, but personally, kindergarten was sort of a wash for me. All I can remember learning there was to play in a rhythm band and cover my mouth when I yawn.
The garden — now, that’s a different proposition altogether. Here’s just a little of what I have learned there:
Science. The chaos theory of physics came as no surprise to me after a few seasons of dealing with fire ants, Johnson grass, gravely soil and weather that fluctuates within a week from 85 degrees to 29 degrees and back again.
Of course, it goes without saying that biology and chemistry are quickly learned in the garden. I can see those bees pollinating the blossoms, and the wonderful concoctions I make to pour on things would make a mad scientist green with envy. Clearly, science works and helps us know which elements are needed in the soil. Microbiology is a snap once you start making compost and encouraging all those little unseen but essential creatures to get to work in your garden.
Math. I have a deep understanding of the infinity of numbers based on my experience with insects. I know now that there are more bugs than anything else in the universe, and no matter how many times I reduce that number, it will continue to multiply.
Language. My vocabulary has grown immensely since I took up gardening. I know the words for flowers, vegetables, insects, diseases, dozens of gardening techniques and hundreds of curses I had never dreamed of before. I’ve learned a little Latin, a little French (Souvenir de la Malmaison), a little Spanish (horno de toro) and more.
Psychology. No matter how bad my mood, time spent in the garden will improve it. Just stepping out the door after days of being housebound is a lift. The garden provides outlets for rage, sadness, enthusiasm, joy and every other emotion known to humans. I’ve even been able to work out any remaining issues with my mother by treasuring the rose she left me at the same time that I prune it back to within an inch of its life every few years.
History. Once I began experimenting with heirloom flowers and vegetables, I immediately gained a better understanding of my place in history. The long line that stretches from gardener to gardener through time gives us all a sense of continuity. I can easily see that I’m not the first or the last to dig in the dirt, and once in a while I can learn from the successes and failures of those who have gone before.
Geography. When I started gardening, I thought anything would grow anywhere. Take a lilac from Michigan and plop it down in Texas — no problem. Well, I’ve learned. That may be what’s wrong with the world today — too many things and people growing in the wrong place.
When a woman called from Boston saying she was moving to Texas and wanted to grow her English flower garden here, all I could do was laugh.
"Sure," I told her, "you can grow it here — for about two weeks, then it will all burn up."
She didn’t care for my answer, but it’s true. You’ve got to know where you are before you can know what you can do.
On the other hand, by experimenting with plants from different places, you can learn what grows well here. Many of our favorites came from South America in the beginning — potatoes, tomatoes, peppers and more. Today I grow heirloom tomatoes from Russia, Texas and the Cherokee nation. I love melons from Israel and cucumbers from Armenia.
Keeping an open mind in the garden will, I hope, encourage me to keep an open mind in everyday life.
Sociology. I know that American Indians planted dead fish in their garden, and I buy my dead fish in a bottle. Although I’m not quite up to date on what Trobriand Islanders did to control aphids, I’m sure they did something.
Companion planting is the result of various gardeners in various places trying plants together and seeing how they grow. Some do well; others do not. The lessons we learn from other cultures help us figure out our own problems. Being a gardener helps give you a worldview — after all, we’re all desperate. We’ll try anything, especially if some other gardener tells us it works. We even have our own little societies within the larger world — biodynamic, biointensive, permaculture, organic, and even (yuck!) chemical gardeners.
The wise gardener learns to pick and choose among the many choices and select those cultures that work best in their particular situation. (Except for the chemicals, of course. You can get rid of them.)
Nutrition. Who among us has not learned that vegetables are good for you? You know they are good for you when you pick them from your own garden — the sweetness, the succulence, the satisfaction is more than just food for the body; it is sustenance for the soul as well.
That first ripe tomato is not just something to eat — it is a triumph over all the evil forces of the universe (including hornworms and hail storms) and an affirmation of the power of human determination. It also tastes really good.
Using your homegrown herbs to flavor your food — rosemary, basil, garlic and more — instead of salt and sugar will also increase the nutrition in your diet. Herbs make good food taste better and are so satisfying to grow.
Philosophy. This might be the hardest lesson of all for gardeners. Some things just don’t work. Try as you might, some plants will keel over and die. It’s just the way of things.
On the other hand, some will work wonderfully well, even if you ignore them. We learn through our gardens that everything is a little unpredictable and uncontrollable — and that’s OK, too.
The next time we have a flat tire in the middle of nowhere, we can handle the situation. It’s just like those snapdragons that suddenly came down with wilt and turned to mulch. You deal with it and go on.
Religion. I’m not talking about pantheism here or Bible-thumping, or Quran-quoting, or judgments of any flavor. I’m talking about faith. Every gardener learns that sometimes you just have to do the best you can and then leave the rest to ... nature.
More often than not, the faith is justified. A drive through the Central Texas countryside in the spring will reaffirm just how well nature can do all on its own. While we listen to voices of doom, bluebonnets, Indian paintbrushes and other sparking splashes of color take over the fields and roadsides. This annual show confirms that beauty and life go on even in the toughest times.