Today, I’d like nothing more than to be outside working in the garden. I imagine the warm glow of the sun reaching across the sky and giving me a pat on the back. Last year at this time, I had already begun harvesting from a few plants, but that was in Phoenix. The reality of the situation here in Milwaukee, however, is nowhere near as warm or fuzzy. Overnight, a dusting of snow blanketed the yards. The sun has already begun sending its rays down to melt the offensive chill. Even with this bit of encouragement from above, outside, it’s a sobering 25* F but feels like 12* when factoring the wind chill (and we always factor in the wind chill). In Celsius, it’s -4* (feels like -11*). Caring for a garden is an extreme lesson in patience that modern living has disrupted. I don’t want to wait, I want to start yesterday!
Instead, I have decided to put my energy into learning more about this concept, its history, and its place in modern society. In short, tending the garden of my mind. What is a garden, after all? What is its purpose? The Wikipedia page for garden types lists more than 100 different garden styles spanning various countries of origin, historical empires, religious purposes, levels of formality, cultural practices, and more. Perhaps my favorite incarnation of a garden is the “kindergarten,” a German compound word. Isn’t it lovely to think of children growing their brilliant young minds from the nurturing care and attention of formative early education?
For this blog post, I will consider a garden as a noun. Although the word also has use as a verb and adjective, these ultimately stem from its position as a noun (kind of like how “Google” became a verb because it was first a noun). The Dictionary.com Unabridged definition from Random House, Inc. describes the term “garden” as:
1. a plot of ground, usually near a house, where flowers, shrubs, vegetables, fruits, or herbs are cultivated.
2. a piece of ground or other space, commonly with ornamental plants, trees, etc., used as a park or other public recreation area: a public garden.
3. a fertile and delightful spot or region.
Basically, this says a garden can be anything! It can be intentional or sporadic, private or public, functional or aesthetic. What an empowering thought.
A Brief History
Food is a basic necessity of life. Our early ancestors, hunter-gatherers, relied on nature to provide sustenance. To them, the whole world was a garden. When something wasn’t in front of them, they didn’t stop until they found what they needed to survive. Have you ever walked around in nature, noticed a wild plant resembling something you eat, felt a twinge in your stomach, and wondered if this is also edible? Perhaps you pulled out a field guide for identifying edible wild plants; these resources were obviously unavailable several thousands of years ago. I pause to wonder how common accidental poisonings were back then.
Gradually, a transition occurred known as the Neolithic/Agrarian/Agricultural Revolution (take your pick as to which term you’d like to use). These groups of people became more sedentary than their predecessors, more content to develop tools and methods for cultivating the land and raising livestock. Their view of what a garden encompasses became a bit more focused. From these developments arose great civilizations, which led us to present time (essentially… with quite a bit in between).
Along the way, populations increased, specialties were honed, and industrialization changed everything. Fewer people cultivated their own gardens, content with allowing others of more experience or desire to handle food matters while they developed other pursuits. The personal connection with food as sustenance was married to food as an emotional connection. Instead of being something to give you energy, it could also be there to comfort you during a difficult time or enhance celebration of a good time. In many cultures, sharing meals draws people together. Having bountiful food available also became a status symbol– the wealthier you were, the more food you could afford. In meager economic times, physical ideals skewed toward voluptuous shapes exuding health, while being extremely thin was perceived as a sign of malnourishment and weakness. A diet lacking the nutrition of fresh foods but high in processed products can also lead to obesity and serious health conditions. Quality food is how we feel well.
It is also important to note that gardens were not created and tended only for the utilitarian purpose of providing sustenance. What of art and beauty and the appreciation of nature?
Modern Gardens: When Green Turns Gray
Modern gardening faces ethical issues of biotechnology, chemical applications, sustainability, and genetic modifications. Some argue that these steps are necessary to provide enough food for exponentially increasing populations or to grow food in less fertile climates and prevent famine. Others point to declining wildlife populations, lack of plant diversity, and questionable health effects as reasons to reevaluate food production methods.
In a 2011 article for The Seattle Times Pacific NW Magazine, writer and gardener Valerie Easton wrote,
“We do know we can no longer afford to garden as our parents and their parents did, when the water seemed to be endless and chemicals a scientific advancement. It’s time to update our understanding and our skills.”
Accomplishing this, especially in the city, will require creativity and innovation. It’s time to think outside the garden box. The French government, for example, made headlines recently with passage of a new, environmentally-focused law. Under this plan, all new commercial buildings must be built with a partial green roof or solar panels. A green roof is exactly as it sounds– a garden atop the building. The field was pioneered in Germany; Toronto, Canada has a similar law (although theirs also applies to residential properties as well), as does Switzerland. The benefits of a green roof include increased insulation, reduced runoff, air pollution filtering, decreased urban heat island effect, and more habitat spaces for our feathered friends.
Before I begin helping my parents with their gardens, start any of my own seedlings, or become involved in community gardens this year, I need to decide the factors most important to me. This is how I will make a connection with the earth, so it needs to be personal. Past experience has taught me that overly ambitious projects require more time and resources than I am prepared to offer. Organic, chemical-free methods have always been a priority. After living in the desert, I realized that mindful, environmentally sustainable practices (especially around water preservation and soil integrity) are another big part of what I want to accomplish. Perhaps also as a result of living in quite different climates, my mental radar has its sights on developing a better understanding of native, invasive, and ornamental plants. Of course, I can’t forget my animal friends, especially the bees, butterflies, and birds. I seek to live in harmony with nature as much as possible. The future is up to us– first we dream it, then we create it. The whole world is a garden. As cold as the weather may be outside, it has no hold over the fertile soil of the mind. Time to get planting.