The Spiritual Gardener: Lessons from the Garden

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It’s that time again: summer is winding down, and the kids and grandkids will soon head back to school. Here, how our gardens and our children find their own ways in life – and how much more interesting life is for that.


Today as I got into the car to go to work, I noticed those brilliant canary-yellow American goldfinches working over the seedpods of the rudbeckia. I love watching them, though usually they are not in evidence for a few more weeks, when they come in droves to feast on the seeds of the helianthus. Speaking of which, they are putting on a spurt of growth prior to their flowering, and their floral companions, the nearby sedums, are putting up their green flower umbrils in preparation for their eventual purple display. This strong yellow and purple combination is impressive, as we now have a lot of both plants, and the garden is wholly given over to this two-color palette for two stunning weeks each year.

In other bird news, the hummingbirds as usual are visiting the canna lilies, and we had fun watching them last night from our front porch. They are so charming; I used to love watching them in our former garden in Colorado, where they were so busy and brilliant and numerous. The grapes that have seeds are nearly ripe on the front porch and, of course, the greedy chipmunks can’t wait and are already gorging on them, the evil things.

The new wave of throated purple phlox has begun blooming, and yesterday we saw a few blooms open on the four o’clocks. The four o’clocks were a bit disappointing, I have to admit, because they have turned out to be yellow and because yellow is not my favorite color in the garden. It’s just a personal preference, no hard feelings. I find yellow loud and a bit vulgar, to be honest, I don’t know why; it clashes with other colors in the garden and does not co-operate well with them; overall, it lacks subtlety. A bit of pale yellow here and there is okay and works well, especially with blues, but the yellow I don’t like much is that brassy orange-yellow, as in common day lilies and black-eyed Susans.

But at the same time, yellow has taught me a valuable lesson in life.  I used to ruthlessly edit yellow out of my garden but noticed that the more I uprooted it, the more successful I became in growing plants that are yellow. Naturally, this was very frustrating for the gardener, so the gardener (as if he were a very simple cartoon character – Elmer Fudd, say) foolishly redoubled his effort to get yellow out of his garden, and yellow flourished more and more. Finally, the rather obtuse gardener got the message and changed his view (progress!), accepting that the garden is not all about the gardener and what the gardener wants but is actually more about what the garden wants in the long run. Possibly, it is entirely about that and not about the gardener at all, I have even thought, in an occasional very modest moment.

That is part of the Tao of gardening: to the uninitiated or a casual observer, it looks simply like the gardener is making a garden, but the greater reality is that the garden is all the while making the gardener. And this is more and more true over time; the longer we have been gardening, the more we are products of our gardens, rather than vice versa. People, even some gardeners, think that the garden is that patch of flowers in the front yard but really the garden is behind the gardener’s eyes, not in front of them. And so, as I have mellowed, yellow has come more and more into my garden, and I am truly at peace with it. At last. Wise, no?

And so, as I was saying, of course the four o’clocks would turn out to be yellow, I might have known they would. What else would they be, as I ironically observed to myself, on seeing them in bloom for the first time yesterday evening. Soon everything in my garden will be yellow, and no doubt after a while I will come to be at peace with that, too. I suppose that is how I will know my life is at its natural end. This morning as I went off to work, I had to laugh as I noticed the bright yellow American goldfinches, furiously working the seeds out of the yellow black-eyed Susans, below the yellow showers of blooms on the helianthus and above the fresh new yellow blooms of the four o’clocks and day lilies. So it can’t be long now for me, really, and that whole natural end thing.

And just as the garden teaches us that it will be what it must be, so our children teach us the same lesson over time: they must be what they must be, too. We gardeners and we parents have our plans and hopes and expectations but we soon learn that we are not the only creatures with these attributes of willfulness and foresight. Here is how this funny thing called parenting works: we get to be helpful and benevolent influences, we gardeners, and we get to be proximate observers as the miracle of life unfolds before us over the canvas of time. Our gardens and our children find their own ways in life, and how much more interesting life is for that, I say.

One not too chilly March night in Oklahoma, they place in your wife’s arms a tiny sleeping bundle with fine red fuzz for hair, and you are instantly enchanted and remain so for life. You are cast under a spell and enter into a deep, trance-like state. The next thing you know, she is 18 and about to go off to college, and you are on a New Jersey beach with her on a fine summer day, wondering how did this happen so fast and how can we slow down the sometimes too dizzying speed with which God’s grace bears us along through life.

Friday afternoon, I left work early and got a bunch of chores done at home, so I could take Saturday off with a clear conscience. And then I got up early Saturday, and my daughter and I drove to Spring Lake in the convertible with the top down and the music blasting, on a cool summer morning that was simply ideal. We spent the whole day at the beach, and it was perfect: rather cool in the shade of the umbrella, which drove us out into the sun to warm up, where we were burned a bit but not badly. After a stressful week at work, I could go in the refreshing ocean, then lie in the warm sun and just feel the stress pour off me like the seawater rolling off my skin. It was heaven and sorely needed.

I am finally starting to believe (perhaps a bit late in life) what everybody has been telling me for years, that I work  a little too hard and need to give myself a break. And my daughter was such a delight to be with: a poised, accomplished and funny adult, just a marvel really, and I felt the melancholy of her leaving in two weeks creep stealthily over me, infusing me with sadness, though I particularly don’t want to be sad today. I want to be happy and upbeat or, at least to seem that way, which is nearly as good. When I went to college, I felt nothing but excitement and looked forward to it extremely. I had no idea what my parents were feeling at the time, selfish creature that I was and that probably most teens are. For myself, I couldn’t wait to start the great adventure and I hope she feels that keenly, too.  If only she has that same enthusiasm, I think, I would be okay with her not thinking about how poignant it is for us.

That night at home, after she and our son had gone off with groups of friends, my wife got home from work, and we just sat on the porch and had sandwiches and cold cantaloupe with wine, enjoying the cool summer evening and having this time for ourselves. Soon, we shall be two little old things in a porch swing on a summer night, in our sweaters holding hands and waiting for the phone to ring. Sunday I cleaned out the arch bed and then went driving with my son for the first time, to get groceries, and every parent knows that odd feeling of going off with your child in the car, but your child is the one driving for the first time ever. We went to some good friends’ house for dinner and sat on their porch before and afterwards, then home to bed early.

On the way to work today (partly cloudy with a high of only 85 and a chilly low of 69), I summarized the weekend to myself thankfully thus: I got to spend an entire day alone with my daughter just days before she leaves home to go to college, I went to the beach which I love to do, the weekend was beautiful, I got to have quiet time alone with my wife, I got to take my son driving for the first time and to relish this small rite of his long passage into manhood, took long walks with my dog, I worked in my delightful garden but not overmuch, I had lots of peaceful rest and had a casual, mellow dinner with friends … all in all, pretty nearly perfect. I am a lucky man, and the world bowls along in a happy groove.

And, thinking of my son driving and becoming a man, I reflected that it was 16 years ago this week that we were handed a tiny, red and wrinkled thing in a soft blanket, which frankly was not much to look at. Contrary to popular belief, not all babies are beautiful, and the strapping, handsome young man who is now our son came into our lives with low birth weight issues and looking very much in need of care and, more than that, in need of warmth and food and love, all of which he immediately got in full measure and soon settled down into a more healthful routine.

We went that far-off summer to the beach in Carlsbad, Calif., for a family vacation. It was hot, and there was no air conditioning in the room, but the rooms were lovely, and all we did was lie around, eat and sleep and adore our children all day, completely besotted, revelling in our joy and the completeness of our family. It is a bad thing, I know, to adore your children too much. Is there a word like uxoriousness for children, for the excessive love of one’s children? There should be.



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.