The Spiritual Gardener: What Your Garden Is Trying to Tell You

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Spring is here at last, but before the busy season in the garden gets under way, now is a good time to take a moment and remind ourselves of the six most important things our garden is trying to tell us.

1. Be hopeful.  To garden is to hope.  The planting of a seed or the tending of a small plot of vegetables or flowers is founded on hope, a belief and certainty about a better future. It is a curious thing about gardening that the reality often disappoints – a color scheme does not look quite right after all, a hoped-for gorgeousness does not materialize, a beloved tree is destroyed by pests or hungry animals in winter, weather and disease and the gardener’s poor judgment or deficient skill so often ruin all our best laid plans. And yet even a lifetime of disappointment strangely only feeds the gardener’s hope rather than diminishes it. We are cheered to plan the garden of midsummer in the depths of winter, we lay the plans for next year’s spring garden glories in the shambles of the exhausted and dying autumnal garden, we ignore our failures (hopefully, after we learn from them) and revel only in our successes. In our mind’s eye we see only the ideal we are striving toward and the world as it ought to be. We are willingly bedazzled by this beauty of optimistic hope.

And yet, gardeners are also anchored in the soil, so much a part of the earth they care for and so planted with their feet on the ground, that this optimism is never allowed to become unhinged or foolish. Rather, it is a different way of seeing altogether, a kind of far-seeing idealism that takes in the world as it is, but lives within it as it really ought to be, and can perhaps be.

2.  Be Persistent.  Persistence goes well with hope; combine the two and you have a very powerful mixture for goodness and happiness. Every year – indeed every week – brings heartbreak and disappointment in the garden: death, loss, frustration and disappointment. But every season also brings with it delightful surprises, unplanned beauties and undeserved successes that mix with the disappointments and offset them, obscure them.  It does not actually matter if the successes exceed the disappointments as long as the gardener has the temperament to focus on and retain the former, and endure and ignore the latter. This sort of disciplined, impressionistic editing is essential to gardening happiness, or to life happiness for that matter. It leads to taking the long perspective.

One of the few but very considerable real advantages of aging is that it gives one, finally, the long perspective in life, to take the rough with the smooth, the good with the bad.  We know that over time, with hope and persistence, it will all even out and we will come home again, safe and sound and reasonably happy at the last. The persistent gardener stands out there in his garden, being shredded and beaten with foul weather, the decaying vegetation of the expiring garden all around him on a cold and bitter late autumn’s early evening; his face is aglow with a knowing and slightly odd expression of joy, for he is holding a paper bag of cherished crocus bulbs in one hand and a bucket of daffodil bulbs in the other, and his mind is alight with the warm and colorful dazzle of the spring garden to come. Not just persistence then, but persistence in the face of failure and adversity: that is what we gardeners prize and aspire to, that is our great characteristic. And not just about the little things of the garden, either, but by extension about all the big things of life.

3.  Practice stoicism.  What I mean here by stoicism is a courageous acceptance of what must be, what is ordained, what just cannot be otherwise.  The gardener knows to accept the judgment of nature, bow to it, and move on.  We gardeners have each been humbled countless times in our gardening lives. Gardening has a way of sandpapering the pride and hubris right off of us. Other things do that too, of course: raising children for example, and so do professional or personal disappointments, and illness. But gardening does it in a thousand small ways, rasping and refining us gently but firmly into the smoothly polished and weathered old things we all become in the end, if we are lucky enough. And what a great thing it is too; I am not complaining in the least. At the last, providing we are paying attention and are not too stubborn, we are humbled even by our successes and joys, and we accept them too as what is and must be, and not as an artifact of our will.

As I have grown more mellow and more experienced, I have learned the reality that, at most, we are a partner in the garden and – I increasingly suspect – the junior partner of the enterprise.  Sometimes I wonder if gardeners are strictly necessary at all. Of this I am sure: a really great gardener has given up most of his ego, and he listens to what the garden is trying to tell him in its two languages of silence and beauty. He knows in his heart that his place is not so much to order the garden to his liking as it is to cooperate with the garden in fulfilling its beautifully unfolding potential.

4.  Cooperate with the garden. Too often the busy gardener is out in the garden, imposing his divine order on a chaotic corner of the world. He is thinking along the lines of the American writer Henry Brooks Adams, who told us: “Chaos was the law of nature, order was the dream of man.” I once, as a much younger man, thought of having this inscribed in stone and placing this at the entrance to our garden. It perfectly captured what I thought of as the way the gardener tries to change, discipline and improve chaotic nature and wrest from it the orderly, beautiful and disciplined garden he has in his mind. That would only ever exist in his orderly mind. In my current way of thinking, I now consider this an absurd and actually rather immature point of view. One of the things I wish someone had told me long ago in my gardening life, and told me in a way that I would believe it despite my pig-headedness, was that gardening is not about subduing or even changing nature, but is more about cooperating with nature.

If I were to carve a motto in stone and put it at the entrance to my garden today, I think it would be a far more simple and modest one: “Qui plantavit florebit”.  He who has planted will flourish. Especially if he has planted in a way that cooperates with nature rather than seeks to impose his order on the natural world around him. When you do this, you can begin to understand what your own garden is trying to tell you. And what a good discipline it is for the gardener to listen hard to what the garden is saying. In this way, we allow the garden to bring us what we really need, just when we really need it, and our role is the seemingly simple one of standing back and cooperating with this grace by letting it happen, and then being appropriately grateful for these small and possibly meaningful surprises.  It’s the same with raising children, in case this has never occurred to you.

5.  Be holistic.  Consider designating your garden as a chemical-free zone. For some this is a startling and radical idea, but for others this is just a simple and rather obvious way of life. I use no chemicals in my garden (except a bit of fertilizer on the grass out of laziness) and work instead to make sure the soil is healthy and full of natural nutrients. We use plenty of horse manure here, and it is fine. Birds flock in huge numbers, and they do more to keep the insect pests down than any amount of pesticides. Bees and humming birds, fireflies and butterflies, all particularly sensitive to and repelled by garden chemicals, are in this garden all the time now. I have often seen nearly a hundred butterflies at a time here: clouds of them in the strong sun of mid-day; they are fantastic.

I never have problems with common pests like aphids, which are eaten by our delightfully numerous ladybugs. I used to be plagued by Japanese beetles who shredded the canna lilies; now I never see them. The grass is positively lumpy with all the earthworm activity, and if you dig a spadeful of grass up it is amazing how it teems with worms. Yes, our lawn looks rather seedy and tired in midsummer, but I consider it a small price to pay for the glories of yearlong birdsong and the sublime gift of seeing a hundred butterflies at a time in the garden. Or the joy of sitting in the dark on a warm summer night and seeing the charming, magical flicker of fireflies, alight all over the garden, while the orchestra of cicadas throbs and buzzes. More important, perhaps, are the interior changes that come over the gardener when he is truly in tune with the garden and is cooperating with it intuitively and holistically. The same thing happens with faith and grace in the spiritual sphere; these are not two distinct ideas, but the same idea operating the same way and only seeming to be different.

6. Beauty is ephemeral. Gardens are necessarily ephemeral; they are different even from day to day in subtle ways, as every attentive gardener knows, and certainly month to month and season by season. They are wildly different from year to year, even under the care of the same gardener.  The gardener is changing too, of course, and so are his tastes and skills and interests. The fact that the garden designer has to operate in four dimensions, and include change over time in his design is the very thing that makes gardening so extremely complex and challenging an art. And I think we have to admit that this constant mutability is a great part of the charm of the gardening art, for most of us.

Beauty is ephemeral too, as every gardener and indeed most non-gardeners know, or should know, but a gardener has this lesson impressed upon his heart just as all the facts of natural life are.  Youth and vigor are ephemeral, annoyingly, and so is happiness, and for that matter sadness too. And so too is the gardener himself who, if he is wise, knows he is not trying to create in his garden a durable masterpiece or even something that will look familiar ten years after the gardener has left it. The certainty of the transitory nature of all things is one way wisdom begins in the garden.  Accepting it is a step further on the road to enlightenment. Being pleased by it and then rejoicing in it are only for the very advanced, but let us not get too far ahead of ourselves here.

The miracle of another spring is upon us again, and as we go forth into this new year of beauty in the garden, let us keep these wonderful lessons in mind.


David Jensen writes the popular American blog “The Garden Interior,” which chronicles his garden in southern New Jersey. Please visit at You can follow David Jensen on Twitter at @GardenInterior.