Gardening as spiritual practice: Waiting

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:

a time to be born, and a time to die;

a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;

a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to throw away;
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.


August in my garden is almost always a time of waiting. The garden is my primary source for renewal and peace. It is where I am creative, and where I have space and quiet to think. But this August, after so much rain, it is a place of weeds, mud, mosquitoes, and rot. When I head out the door, I don’t see the fruits of my labor, or a blank canvas waiting to be painted. I see enemy territory. I see a long list of my least favorite chores. The garden, for a while, is nearly the last place I want to be.

Gardening teaches (and re-teaches) patience in lots of ways. We learn patience through happy anticipation, waiting for seeds to germinate, for flowers to bloom, for snow to thaw. Why is it that I struggle to view my late-summer landscape with the same anticipation? Is it because the lushness I see outside comes mostly from plants growing in the wrong places? (You know.) Their flowers and seedpods mean the same work for me next year–or perhaps even next month. Is it that this season’s relative dearth of butterflies and bees makes the environment seem lonely? Is it mostly the mud and mess, combined with a lack of available cash (see vacation photos…) to ameliorate the problem?

Whatever it is, I remind myself that the feeling is temporary. The humidity will break in a month or two, and the fall blooming plants will take their turn to delight and surprise me. Those weeds will always be with me, and I must learn to change my attitude about them. So many of them offer critical food or nectar sources for wildlife that I cherish. And so much is happening that I cannot see. Remarkable processes and relationships, which have taken ages to evolve, go through their rhythms before my unseeing eyes.

ants on peony thru magnifying glassI remind myself again that in the garden, there is always something to anticipate happily, and there is always something wonderful unfolding before me. The difference in the garden between a time to mourn and a time to dance is in the gardener’s intention to hear a waltz instead of a dirge.



Resisting temptation: Still too early to plant much.

Spring seems finally to be here. I’m in the midst of a series of days in the mid-70s to low 80s (23-27C), and curbing the desire to plant every seedling I’ve got takes a lot out of me. But experience has taught me well. There is a reason our average last frost date is in mid-April. As always, gardening means exercising patience.

forsythia sprayTrays of tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers sit in the cold frame, waiting to stretch out in their new homes. Yogurt cups of verbena, primulas, salvias, and hollyhocks fill the floor of my office closet, stretching up to the glow of the fluorescent shop lights that have nursed them so far. A heat mat coddles ground cherries and jalapeños. Nicotianas in their half milk carton promise cottage charm, but not for some weeks yet.

If you garden in Zone 7b or 8a, as I do, planting time is close, but not here yet. Spend these lovely, warm, lengthening days preparing your garden beds, digging in compost, and pulling annual weeds like three-seeded mercury before they reproduce. Those weeds will compete with your vegetables and flowers for nutrients, and they didn’t get to be the resilient types they are without being efficient competitors.

It’s hard. Believe me, I know. For me, waiting for the spring planting date to pass is like my kids waiting for Christmas. It seems it will never get here. But it will.

Muddy boot realities: February means being patient.

(with apologies to Jen @ Muddy Boot Dreams)

My garden daydreams lately have consisted almost entirely of imagining three consecutive days without rain.  I raked my porch today (yes, there were enough leaves to merit a rake). I did this not long ago, and autumn is long past. Shouldn’t I be moving on to other tasks? But some of my oaks hang onto their leaves throughout the winter and only drop them in heavy storms or when new leaves push them out. I rake for six months of the year, it seems.


I have a fig tree, probably ‘Celeste,’ that would be happier in the ground than in the large container where it now resides. Mid-February would be an ideal time to plant it, but I can’t see that the ground will be dry enough in a week and a half. On my walk to my shed this morning, my feet sank a bit more than half an inch in soft, squelchy mud. I do not dare walk outside without tall rubber boots.

muddy boot print

If it weren’t so soggy, it would be an ideal time to start preparing some beds for spring: amending with lime as per soil test recommendations; digging in leaf mold or compost, mulching to suppress winter weeds and to avoid the good soil washing away. Now is the time here to plant bare-root roses and fruiting trees and shrubs.

But instead, I am practicing patience. Digging in wet soil is counterproductive; it destroys the soil structure and compacts the air spaces plants’ roots need. We work hard around here to make our sticky clay friable and much less like the brick commonly made from it. I know all this; nothing has changed in the past 20 years, but at this time of year, it is still difficult to sit on my hands and wait.

For now, I will be content with watching the emerging buds of Japanese butterbur, Petasites japonicus. This plant has gloriously tropical-looking round leaves. I think the buds, the size of a clementine, look a bit like Audrey II emerging from the earth.

bud of Petasites japonicas, Japanese butterbur

Audrey II in “Little Shop of Horrors, ” Chicago Theater Review

Cultivating patience

Of all the produce yielded by the habit and practice of gardening, perhaps the most important product is patience. I often believe I have this in short supply; perhaps the mice in my shed eat it. But despite what may be observed at, say, the Chicago Flower and Garden Show, which I used to attend regularly when I lived in the Windy City, nature will not be rushed.  So patience is forced upon me.

purple hellebore

Most of my hellebores I acquired from my neighbor Martha, and are the standard white and rose-colored ones. But a few years ago on my annual pilgrimage to Big Bloomers Flower Farm, I decided to spring for a hellebore in a different color and spice up the mix a bit. I thought I was getting a blackish-blue one, and of course by now I’ve lost the tag and can’t find the scrap of paper on which I scribbled down the name. I’ve waited two years for it to bloom.

Finally, it is blooming. As you can see, it’s not blackish blue, but a deep violet-burgundy. It has been in this bud stage for three weeks but has refused to open up.

Today is the day.

purple hellebore profile

It grows much closer to the ground than my other hellebores; it’s only about 4 inches tall. I must kneel with my ear to the ground, literally, to look into its blossom. This is not a becoming posture for me so, wishing not to be an unpleasant neighbor, I decided perhaps I’d better just turn its face up to me instead.

purple hellebore in bloom

I had a lovely lunch with my friend Ginger today. We are a generation apart in age but we have similar professional backgrounds and interests. Our conversation turned to hellebores and we decided we may try to explore the hellebore specialist Pine Knot Farms together one of these days. Perhaps they can identify this one for me. I think they originally grew it, actually.

It was a long wait for this little guy, but worth it, not least for its perpetual reminder that everything happens in its own time. If I am lucky, patience may prove for me to be one of those volunteers that pops up in the garden out of nowhere; one that I know for certain I did not plant but am thrilled to see. If I am honest with myself I will want it to grow six inches a day and flower abundantly for six months. I am determined, though, to nurture it so that though it may grow very slowly, it will be sturdy and resilient.