My first garden was a small corner of my parent’s backyard, the only flat piece of an otherwise sharply sloping back lawn. I was in the fourth grade, and one morning I woke with the idea to grow tomatoes. I shuffled through the garage and emerged with a shovel and pickaxe. I marked out a rectangle and then hacked and sacked through the sod and clay. The first tomatoes came months later, a slim crop of Better Boys and Early Girls.
I remember two things from that day. First, I vividly recall the raw power and effort it took to break into that ground. Each time I raised that pickaxe above my head, I pretended to be Pharaoh’s slave, or a prisoner on a chain gang. It was an immense effort that demanded back and hamstring, shoulder and wrist.
The second thing I remember was a feeling of deep satisfaction. At the end of that day, I felt like Jacob after successfully wrestling an angel for a blessing. Gardeners universally know this feeling. It’s not just the satisfaction of completing a job, but it is the feeling of connecting with a particular piece of earth.
To garden is to enter a relationship with a piece of ground. At its essence, all of our digging, weeding, tilling, and planting are not about control, but about knowing. Not about improving, but about listening. The human impulse to mark the earth with lines—a row of crops, the setting of a foundation, a hedgerow on the horizon—is primal and necessary. We strike the earth in order to live. We draw, dig, pull, push, cut, and stack lines upon the landscape. These lines connect us and our human activity to the earth. They are our roots.
I have long been an advocate for sustainable and natural gardening, but I above all, I am an advocate for gardening. If the act of gardening is a relationship, then low maintenance gardening is code for “let’s just be friends.” Or “I’m just not that into you.” Though I make my living designing gardens, I’d rather see one ugly, but beloved amateur garden than a hundred transcendent designer gardens with an owner who doesn’t care. They are like museums without visitors.
This year I’m not growing tomatoes. I have too little space and too many other plant infatuations. But I am digging and transplanting, weeding and mulching. Because it is not so much what I do, than the fact that I do. On a balmy day in April, I sink my hands into soil that has been warmed by the sun. It is loose and dark from years of gardening. I stand up and look across the overcrowded garden. And I wish for an ugly corner of sod to wrestle with.