This week should bring on the first hard frost of the fall, and with it the end of my first year of gardening. Though I’m far from being a master gardener, I’ve learned so much along the way.
I don’t just mean that I now know what pea shoots look like or how much water tomatoes mean. A few seasons growing real food in the gardening have taught me far more about myself. Here’s what I’ve discovered:
TIME IN NATURE = HAPPINESS
My mental health hasn’t been perfect this year, but it’s been better than I can remember for a long time. I credit that in large part to time spent outside in this first year of gardening. I find myself craving sunshine, physical labor, the smell of fresh mint, and the feel of dirt under my fingernails. I’m sleeping better (though imperfectly), and I’m calmer. I have an enjoyable, peaceful, and rewarding hobby to look forward to each evening.
If you’d like to know more about the physical and mental benefits of time in nature, be sure to check out The Nature Fix by Florence Williams. It’s a fascinating read about how profoundly we need the natural world. I especially recommend the audiobook.
WE ALL NEED SOMETHING TO NURTURE
Humans are pack animals. We’re designed for social interaction and cooperative living. Unfortunately, modern life is pretty isolating, and we don’t have as much opportunity to care for one another as we ought to. We need opportunities to share love. We need living things to nurture – people, animals, and even plants.
Throughout my first year gardening, I’ve been surprised by how much affection I feel for my little garden. I apologize to my tomatoes when I run into them, I bless my summer squash, I whisper encouragement to my tomatillos. Do I anthropomorphize my plants? Sure. But I pour love out on them all the same, and that love makes me feel more whole. And I could swear those plants love me back.
THE WORLD’S MORE BEAUTIFUL WHEN YOU’RE PAYING ATTENTION
I’ve lived in the same neighborhood for several years, but until this year I never noticed which neighbors had beautiful rose bushes, where the wild sunflowers grew, and when dahlias were in bloom. As an apartment homesteader and first year gardener, I’ve paid attention to changing temperatures more than ever before, and it’s tuned me into the season’s changes in a totally new way.
EVEN SMALL ACCOMPLISHMENTS FEEL GOOD
It’s hard to measure success in my day job. I run events for a living, and it’s hard to ever feel like things went perfectly. There are too many moving parts, and the results can be too subjective.
I don’t feel that way as a gardener, though. When I harvest 15 jalapeños at once, I know I did something right, even when I was guessing my way through it. Even if I only harvest one cantaloupe this year, I’ll feel so proud to have grown it. Little victories like these, and the high that comes with them, make the effort completely worth it.
IT’S MORE FUN TO COOK HOMEGROWN FOOD
Cooking can be fun or it can be a chore. This summer has gotten me back in the habit of cooking for enjoyment because I’m so excited to use my homegrown produce. Real food, fresh from the garden tastes better than what you can buy in a produce section. It looks more appetizing. It’s conveniently right there in your kitchen without any trips to the supermarket.
And it’s easier to know what to cook in the first place when you have freshly harvested real food on hand. Tomatoes and basil will insist on being made into bruschetta. Jalapeños will ask to be pickled. Apricots will demand that you learn to make jam. Foods in season prove far more inspiring and delicious than their Walmart counterparts.
LEARNING IS A JOY
I’ve always loved learning and felt like knowledge was my security blanket. But somewhere along the way in my formal education (well, let’s be honest, during grad school), that love got a little bit dulled. Figuring out how to grow food has brought that enthusiasm for learning right back.
Gardening might seem simple, but it definitely has a learning curve. I spend a little time almost every day researching how to grow things more effectively, how to solve problems, and how to maximize gardening space. Gradually understanding the art and science of apartment gardening is a delight.
FINDING BALANCE TAKES TIME
It is HARD to find the time in the day to get everything done that needs doing. Staying on top of my container and community gardens, preparing meals from scratch, spending time with friends and family, exercising, blogging, and keeping the house clean feel impossible on top of working 40 hours a week and getting enough sleep to heal from my chronic illnesses.
But I’ve found that I almost always have a little time to spend in my garden, and that there really are more hours in the day that I had thought. And I’ve been more forgiving when my bedrooms not clean, because at least my cucumbers are flourishing.
IT’S OKAY TO FAIL
I had a lot of failures in my first year gardening. My acorn squash, delicata squash, honeydew, and two watermelon plants died early on. The broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage plants grew, but never produced anything edible. Squash bugs invaded my spaghetti squash. Cantaloupe thieves plundered my harvest. I neglected all of my lettuces and greens into oblivion. I lost half or more of my roma tomatoes to blossom end rot. And you know what? None of that kept me down for long.
I deal with anxiety and live with frequent fear of embarrassment or failure. That anxiety keeps me from trying new things, because I’m scared I’ll be bad at those things. In adulthood it’s been easy to get caught in a comfortable, cautious lifestyle where I avoid embarrassment, but also miss out on potential happiness and experience. Gardening was a low-stakes way for me to challenge my own fear of failure and shame. Sure, I didn’t always succeed, but I’m proud of the successes I did have. I’m proud that I tried.
I rediscovered myself in the garden this year. I hope you’ll try it too.