Gardening as spiritual practice: Food and joy

I’m thinking more about why I garden. I’ll try to reflect on this topic twice a month. I welcome your thoughts on why you garden (or don’t).

Why I Garden: Food

As a topic this is (forgive me) low-hanging fruit.  I don’t have much space to grow edibles but increasingly I find myself trying to sneak edibles into the ornamental landscape. Any little pocket where I can edge in a squash plant or head of lettuce rapidly gets appropriated. But why?


Some articles will tell you that it’s cheap to grow your own food. It’s not. The assertion that growing one’s own food is cheap boils down to a comparison of the price of a pound of tomatoes at the local supermarket against the price of a packet of seeds, from which one could, theoretically, grow dozens of pounds of the same vegetable. Any farmer will tell you that this is bad economics. Once you have factored in the cost of building raised beds; buying equipment such as stakes, bird netting, row covers, and fertilizer; not to mention the cost of water, it’s hard to argue that the first growing season, at least, has not yielded some very expensive produce. And what is your time worth? Remember, you’re not being paid to farm your own land. Economics is not the answer.

(See also, on my summer reading list, The $64 Tomato: How One Man Nearly Lost His Sanity, Spent a Fortune, and Endured an Existential Crisis in the Quest for the Perfect Garden, by William Alexander.)

Peace of Mind?

Maybe. I’ll never argue that it’s not good to know where one’s food comes from. But the peace-of-mind argument is one best made early in the season, before the aphids, flea beetles, squash vine borers, squash bugs, spider mites, and the rest of the tiny critters in my ecosystem have had their say. We’ve only had a few days above 90F so far, so my plants still look lush and strong. Check back with me in mid-September, when summer has begun its final month. Some garden pest or other environmental circumstance will have pushed me nearly to the breaking point, and I’ll be wondering whether the effort is worth it.

I’m committed to gardening sustainably, with no chemical pesticides or fertilizers, so I can feel secure in the safety of the produce I bring in from the garden. In early June, I can comfortably argue in the words my father sometimes says, “That’s not nothing.”

Better Health?

A sample cover image of Organic Gardening magazine

A sample cover image of Organic Gardening magazine

Growing a garden does make you eat your veggies, assuming you grow what you like to eat and aren’t fussy when your produce doesn’t look exactly like it belongs on the cover of Organic Gardening magazine or the pages of the bible of vegetable porn, the Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds catalogue. Your tomatoes may crack. Your carrots may split or twist. They taste good anyway. And if you aren’t bombarding those veggies with every chemical on the Home Depot garden department shelves, you’ll be better for it. So yes, better health is one reason.



I think joy may be the real reason I garden. Work, bills, obligations, and the challenges of raising near-teenage children drain me. I fret a great deal about the state of the world today (good heavens, what will I be like when I’m in my eighth or ninth decade?). I have met neurosis, and she is me. But when I’m in the garden, I feel none of it.

I don’t kid myself: I’m not in control in the garden, no more than I am in control of nuclear proliferation negotiations or whether Antarctic ice sheets melt. Mother Nature is much bigger than I am. Rather, being in the garden reassures me that my place in the world is quite small, that little in this world depends on me, and that realization is the source of the joy. The seeds I plant would come up with or without my help, because that is what they have evolved to do, but as I shepherd their growth I can marvel at the result of millions of years of work that went into the making of this one moment, when I watch the vine reaching for the sun.


5 thoughts on “Gardening as spiritual practice: Food and joy

  1. I garden to connect with a world bigger than mine own and to remember that my choices are bigger than they seem. I garden to relax and think and to feel the joy of creating something beautiful.

  2. I garden as a way to engage with the nonhuman world. Being in contact with plants, dirt, decay and bugs is absolutely real. There is nothing to fake. I read Henry Beston’s book Herbs and the Earth when I was about 13 and from then on wanted a place in which to garden. I’ve been through the circle of the year 21 times since I moved to this place and never get tired of it. But yes, there are times when I want to give up — after hauling yet another can of water to plants that look like they’re ready to give up too (in August, this would be). Then September comes, and it rains and we get that lovely “spring in fall” season when stuff starts blooming again and the garden changes from brown and seedy to ripe and bejeweled. I’m sucked in again and by the following spring I look forward to another round.

  3. Nice post! I always wonder at the people who claim to save thousands each year by growing their own produce. Sure, organic zucchini might be 2$ a pound but who still wants more after you hit the 80 pound mark!?
    I grow sweet corn. It’s a waste of time and effort and space for those 8 tiny, gap toothed, worm nibbled ears, but it’s always the highpoint of the summer vegetable season!

  4. I grow corn too and while we get a lot, we can’t eat it fast enough before the racoons get to it too. But, staring the water boiling before you pick it is still the best way to eat Silver Queen!

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