Live Learn Love Well
Cultivate Gardens for Greater Happiness
Life can move at breakneck speed, and it can be hard to keep up. It often feels like the older I get the faster time goes, and I find myself getting whiplash if I don’t remind myself to slow down and just breathe. There are many days where my schedule is packed full and I’m hustling to fit everything in. Did I remember to put my clothes in the dryer? Did I finish my playlist for my upcoming 90s Rock Ride? On my commute to the city there are meetings to schedule, calls to return, and emails to answer before I arrive at the studio for a live ride. I’m sure that most of us are well acquainted with the feeling I’m talking about: It’s “overwhelmed” meets “where do I even begin?” This is the challenge that comes along with wanting it all . . . everything can start to overflow, and it can feel like too much. Sometimes slowing down to “smell the roses,” combined with a bit of careful pruning, is needed to make it all work smoothly. Every spring, as I start to plan my next garden, I find myself standing in the garden center surrounded by beautiful plants and flowers. I want to buy everything. I also know that if I want my garden to thrive, I need to make careful choices about what I decide to plant. Gardens flourish best when they are carefully cultivated, and as I fill my trunk with my final choices, it hits me again that planting a garden is a template for living a well-balanced life. Gardens and life benefit from planning, consistency, energy maintenance, and the ability to set limits. Sometimes the most important thing you can do is say, This isn’t working, and it’s got to go.
As you probably know, I could talk about gardening all day every day, but I will spare you the full barrage of my enthusiasm and instead attempt to impart a few crucial lessons from one of my favorite hobbies. Though I had a rocky start with my feelings about gardening, I have come to see that so many of the choices that make a garden thrive are applicable to life writ large, and I often find that things I’ve learned from tilling the soil go well beyond the garden walls—they help me live with purpose and passion (and can help you too, even if you never pick up a shovel!).
When I’m deliberate about my plant choices and soil maintenance, all the planning, digging, watering, and constant care eventually result in a bounty of fresh vegetables and flowers. It’s like I’ve conjured my own little miracle out of the earth. When my friends and family gather at my table for a late-summer meal, the vases of brightly colored zinnias, the fresh grilled zucchini, the string beans, the jars of cucumbers I’ve quick-pickled, and the heirloom tomatoes are the result of all my careful decisions. It’s not only what I put into my garden that made it flourish, but also what I took out.
As I said, my relationship with gardening wasn’t always the full-on lovefest you now see on Instagram. For me, gardening was a practical skill that I slowly leaned into loving as an art. When I was a kid, helping my mother with the garden was not only an unpleasant chore but one I was sometimes embarrassed by. I saw the dirt, the constant weeding and watering, the little containers of beer we put out to kill slugs, and the horror that is the smell of homemade compost as pungent reminders that we were different from other families. The worst gardening-related task came every night after dinner, as sure as homework. I’d hear my mother call out to me from the living room.
“Emma! Take this out to the compost.”
I’d groan and slowly walk into the kitchen, knowing my mother was going to hand me the unpleasant remainders of my family’s dinner. Vegetable ends, scraps of meat (if we ate meat that day), and anything else that was no longer edible were tossed together. Imagine a repulsive salad made from garbage. I’d take a deep breath, grab the unreliable flashlight, open the back door, and walk cautiously across the backyard toward the compost pile. It wasn’t just that I found this task gross, I was also worried about what I’d encounter in the ultra-pitch-dark that covers Martha’s Vineyard. Skunks and racoons were common, bugs were aplenty, and snakes were a real possibility. I knew monsters weren’t real, but this didn’t stop me from worrying that some horrifying sea creature had crawled out of the ocean and slithered into my yard and was waiting for a little girl like me to come by so it could swallow me whole. And because my mother didn’t mess around, she composted everything (yes, you can compost meat and dairy if you’re brave). While this meant less waste and more compost for the garden, it also meant that the smell was next-level awful. As I got closer to the pile, trying not to gag, the smell grew more powerful. Finally, when the odor had reached maximum offensiveness, I’d run toward the pile and fling the nasty contents of my bucket in the general direction of the smell. I’d run back through the yard and breathe a sigh of relief when I was inside, safe from wildlife, monsters, and the almighty smell that is putrid meat rotting amongst many months’ worth of vegetable scraps.
Soil without nutrients is useless. Composting is taking old scraps and using them to your benefit. Composting is a great sustainability tool that makes less waste and turns waste into gold. After a successful summer garden my mom would say, “It must be from all the compost we added to the soil!” It was something that I hated but also had to appreciate because it worked. It was valuable trash. Lots of moments in life are similar. Sometimes bad days, gross tasks, or seemingly useless experiences can add up to be really valuable, given enough time. You can’t always see, when you’re in it, how disparate parts of your life can come together to become useful and meaningful. Sometimes you have to embrace the garbage and hope it becomes something beneficial.
Unlike many people on the Vineyard, our garden wasn’t just a luxurious hobby. The hard work we put into our garden wasn’t about preserving decades-old hydrangea bushes or tending to the delicate needs of roses that had been planted by someone’s great-great-great-grandmother. Our garden was a necessity. My parents were committed to eating nutritious foods, and growing our own vegetables made the most sense on a tight budget. Remember, Martha’s Vineyard is an island, so whatever you don’t grow yourself has to be brought from the mainland to the island grocers. And yeah, that made even the most basic items way more expensive.
Every year my mom carefully plotted out what we would put in each row of her garden—rotating where we put the green beans, tomatoes, and cucumbers to yield maximum results. Not only was gardening a great way to save money, but there were plenty of items my mom would grow that you couldn’t even buy at the grocery store. Every spring my mom would order exotic, hard-to-find seeds so she could grow her favorite Chinese water spinach, bok choy, Chinese cucumbers, etc. Each year when the first signs of spring showed up on the Vineyard and Mom dragged me outside to help prep the garden, I couldn’t help but think, Why can’t we be like all the other families and just buy everything we need at a real store? But after months of weeding and watering, lettuce would arrive, zucchini would spring out of their yellow blossoms, bright red peppers and tomatoes would appear, and snow peas would wind themselves around their wooden stakes, dangling off like little prizes. Filling a basket with the foods we had grown ourselves felt magical. We put in the work and now we actually got to eat something our labor and sweat and patience had grown from nothing. We had transformed the dirt into the tomato sandwiches and the stir-fried string beans tossed with sesame oil, garlic, and ginger on my dinner plate. As I nibbled on a crisp string bean, salty from the soy sauce, I’d think, Maybe gardening isn’t so bad. The work was worth it in the end, and maybe it even made the food taste better. Knowing how much effort was put into each vegetable made it even more delicious. (Of course, as a little child I didn’t like most vegetables, so that was probably infuriating for my parents! Thank goodness, I learned how to love vegetables as I got older.)