Recently I was thinning a patch of baby lettuces in my garden and my mind wandered onto the subject of how our perceptions and our realities aren’t always in synch. For instance, I have lived in the countryside (AKA the boonies) for over twenty years, yet I still think of myself as an urbanite. Along these same lines, I tend a reasonable sized vegetable garden (about 20’ by 20’), two decent-sized perennial borders, a small hillside of shrubs and ground cover and any number of containers (i.e. flowerpots), yet I don’t consider myself a real gardener. Some of this disparity comes from social comparison. In other words, when I look around at the scope and success of my neighbors’ gardens and listen to my friends enthuse about their love for growing things, my own efforts (and energies) pale. Plus, I am surrounded by an impressive number of dedicated and skilled farmers whose products I can buy at nearby farmers’ markets at least 4 days a week during the season. So it’s no surprise to me that every spring – usually when facing the daunting task of cleaning up last years’ wintered over mess – I wonder why I even bother. But then, I’ll get out there and spend a few hours playing in the dirt – raking up the dead leaves and other debris, checking to see what perennials survived the winter, turning over the soil in the vegetable garden – and, before I know it, I feel a creeping delight and optimism about what my gardens might produce this year. Truth is, I like gardening, or rather, I like being outdoors, and, as a cook, I get a genuine thrill any time I harvest something that I’ve actually grown myself. I suppose you could say that this makes me a gardener by default.
When it comes to how I tend my gardens, well, I’m back to not being a real gardener. Over the years, I’ve learned to practice a technique I refer to as ‘benign neglect’. You see, while I might get excited in the spring and rush out and buy a bundle of seed packets, or diligently plant too many tomato seedlings once we’re past the last frost, I’m not the sort to dedicate a regular amount of time to garden maintenance. Some weeks, I’ll be out there once or even twice, but then there are the weeks where I do little more than glance at the gardens as I pull into the garage. Truth is, I don’t make gardening a priority, but the good news about not calling myself a real gardener is that I don’t feel any of the guilt or lament that I imagine real gardeners would feel if they were anywhere near as negligent. The other delight I’ve found in my approach is the value of botanical volunteers.
In garden-speak, a volunteer is a seedling that shoots up on its own accord – and my gardens are full of them. In the flower garden, the volunteers are likely the result of plants I let go to seed last season instead of diligently dead-heading (i.e. cutting off the spent blooms) the way real gardeners do. In the vegetable garden, the volunteers come from the tomatoes that fall to the ground and rot before I get to them, or from the dill I let blossom and go to seed, or from the potatoes I don’t find when I attempt to harvest. I often find volunteers in the compost heap as well – cucumbers and squash seem happiest there.
When I first started playing around with gardening, I unwittingly yanked the volunteers – mostly because I didn’t stop long enough to recognize them as anything but unwanted weeds. Now, whenever I can, I let them flourish, sometimes transplanting them to a safe spot if they’ve popped up somewhere they might get trampled or be cramped. Indeed, I’ve even expanded my perennial flowerbeds without having to visit the nursery – I simply transplant the volunteers giving them plenty of room and a few good shovels of compost. In the end, I appreciate the lessons that my volunteers teach me. First, they teach me what thrives in our particular soils, microclimate and, most importantly, under the laws of my ‘benign neglect’. They also teach me to stop and pay attention – what looks like a scrawny weed may turn out to be a splendid flower. I also admire their tenacity and enthusiasm. Finally, I take comfort in their assurance. Each surprise sprout reminds me that I must be doing something right if my gardens are fertile enough to replant themselves. The best I can do is offer them some water and let them grow.