In this age of hyper-technology and a corresponding increase in nature blindness, why do gardens matter?
This is the question I’ve pondered all spring as I work in my own garden.
The garden seems to be the only thing that soothes my soul this spring, and yet, in my career, I, like many of you, work on a computer writing and then sharing on social media.
Still, I’ll be the first to tell you social media doesn’t satisfy the longing of one’s heart.
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[Click on the photos in the galleries to make them larger and see the full captions.]
Instead, being away from the computer, outside tending to plants, animals, and my new honeybees are what fill me.
Why do gardens matter? We know they matter to the pollinators and other creatures who visit them. In a world that is getting smaller and smaller and more connected, we seem to have left our natural friends behind.
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Our lawns are covered with grasses that are many tiny plants of the same genus and species. In Oklahoma, it’s mostly Bermuda grass, Cynodon dactylon, and tall fescue, Festuca arundinacea (syn., Schedonorus arundinaceus, and Lolium arundinaceum.) While grass can be pretty, it doesn’t feed pollinators or the predators that feed off of them. Grass also doesn’t offer cover for animals like birds, lizards and, snakes.
When the garden bloggers were in Zilker Park in Austin for the Garden Bloggers’ Fling, we had a delicious lunch sponsored by High Country Gardens and American Meadows where David Salman, founder of High Country Gardens spoke about nature and the plants he is continuing to discover and nurture through his nursery. He gave an inspiring and uplifting talk about how humans can make real change by planting gardens full of layers–trees, shrubs and nectar-rich perennials and annuals. He discussed how inspired he was from a talk by Doug Tallamy on biodiversity and the layered landscape. I heard a similar talk by Tallamy in Oklahoma a few years ago and wrote about my efforts to create a pollinator buffet.
For further reading on this topic, Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants, Updated and Expanded and The Living Landscape: Designing for Beauty and Biodiversity in the Home Garden, by Tallamy and Rick Darke are both excellent books on the subject. Planting in a Post-Wild World: Designing Plant Communities for Resilient Landscapes, by Thomas Rainer and Claudia West is also superb.
After our lunch and tour of Zilker Park, I sat across from Salman on the bus and discussed various Oklahoma snake species with him. It was refreshing to talk about an animal with someone so knowledgeable and also, not afraid. Whether people like them or not, snakes are an important part of the garden ecosystem. They are not a fuzzy pollinator like a bumblebee, or a Monarch butterfly, or a singing bird, but they are important. That’s why I don’t kill every snake I see. I try to relocate them–even when they are in my house.
Yes, that happened this weekend. I do live in the country you know.
Salman’s talk reminded me why gardens matter. Since I read the above books and listened to several talks including Tallamy’s, I’ve further changed how I garden. While I still love my roses and other cottage-garden plants, I’ve adapted my English-cottage-style garden by investing more in natives and cultivated or selected natives–sometimes called nativars–trying to ever improve my garden for the creatures who live here. There is controversy about nativars, but I’m not going to dive into that here. I do grow both, along with pollen and nectar-rich cultivars from other parts of the world.
Saving the pollinators, birds and other creatures are one reason gardens matter.
Another is that humans, especially children, are becoming increasingly blind to nature. This is frightening because we were born in a garden and as living creatures ourselves. gardens provide us with downtime. We’ve read about how soil bacteria can work as well as SSRIs to increase feelings of happiness, but I think it’s more complicated than that.
Gardens give us permission to play in the dirt.
As a child, perhaps you made mud pies—at least I hope you did. Gardening is permission to get dirty from head to toe again. I am amused by the latest fad on Instagram and other social media platforms showing people in ephemeral clothing, like dresses of the lightest floral linen—planting and hoeing. The truth is gardeners get dirty, and dirty is good. I am often covered with soil, mulch, and sweat when I crawl back inside to rest for a bit. The garden is the one place in life where I have permission to be a child again, and a dirty child at that.
Gardens provide experiences.
There’s a lot of talk about Millennials wanting experiences over things, and I believe that after watching my own children grow into adulthood. They love adventure and will travel the world to find it. So will I for that matter.
Well, there is nowhere more adventurous than a garden. It is filled with scents and sights and wonders to behold, but you have to slow way down to see them. Life and death play out in a hundred small ways in the garden every day. Pollinators sip nectar. Caterpillars chew plants. Spiders grab slow or distracted pollinators. Birds and wasps eat caterpillars and worms. It’s a constant battle out there amongst the beauty.
Sometimes, I take a glass of iced tea out in the garden and just sit in the rock path watching fat bumblebees steal nectar from the too-small flowers of Salvia hybrida ‘Wendy’s Wish.’ If I’m quiet, the pollinators go about their business and even let me take a picture or two.
I think gardening sometimes suffers from a frumpy and superfluous image.
There are days when I get down about my career sharing everything I know about gardening here on the blog and elsewhere. I begin to think it doesn’t matter to anyone anymore. It’s then that I have to go sit in the garden and partake of its reality. It isn’t superfluous. It’s vitally important.
Every garden no matter how large or small feeds us in so many ways. Vegetable gardens give us imperfect tomatoes that ripen on the vine or just indoors on a windowsill. If you lose a plant to a tomato hornworm at least the hornworm will turn into a moth afterward unless it is first killed by braconid wasps. Dill plants not only create fronds that grace our fish dishes, they also feed the caterpillars of Swallowtail butterflies, those large, winged beauties that float over the garden flowers and sip from tall garden phlox.
Why do gardens matter? Because they feed all of us mind, body and soul. There’s not much more important work than that. You don’t have to plant in a large garden like mine. It grew over thirty years of planning and expansion. Just plant a border with vegetables, fruit, and flowers. Try to grow high nectar plants for pollinators. Go ahead and plant old-fashioned roses, daylilies and iris, but also incorporate native plants into your design.
The earth will thank you and reward you with your heart’s desire, peace of mind. Trust me, I know.