Although fall is here, October is still a time of harvest in my Virginia garden. I am still picking (and freezing!) tomatoes, peppers, beans, squash and even goji berries and little pumpkins. Zinnias, asters, mums, and dahlias are cut for my office every week. The pineapple sage plants just began flowering and my new mums are showing their colors for the first time. Basil and cone flowers have gone to seed but I let the finches enjoy them. For next season, I have gathered seeds from plants such as marigold, calendula, and okra and later I will collect four o’clock. Right now, the four o’clock plants are still blooming while at the same time, some have seeds nestled in like black eyes and I cannot bear to change this fantastic image.
Despite this abundance, I felt that I was saying goodbye when I was cutting the yellow peppers yesterday. I know frost is around the corner; I have to think about bringing in the hibiscus and bay plants. But the concept of “putting your garden to bed” escapes me. I feel like I garden all the time. If not in my actual garden, then in my house with seeds, bulbs, houseplants, and even microgreens. To me, a garden is alive all the time, it is a living community and it does not go to sleep in the winter. My kids had a math teacher who said “a day without math is like a day without sunshine.” A gardener would say: “A day without plants is like a day without sunshine.”
A few months ago I was listening to Erika Galentin, a clinical herbalist, speak on an episode of the Native Plant Podcast. Erika said something that was a real eye opener. I am paraphrasing below but this is the gist of what she said:
Plants bring something to the human spirit. Plants can communicate to us and it is not through fantastical means, it is through our senses, our eyesight, our sense of smell, our sense of taste, our sense of touch. When I tune in to that and I learn how to “listen” to plants I feel something deep inside me, I feel an understanding, a connection, the knowledge that has transferred from the plant to myself because I am focusing on it, seeing it, I am touching it, I am tasting it, I am growing it. A relationship has formed with that plant and like any kind of relationship that can bring us spiritual enlightenment, it can bring us emotional enlightenment, and it can bring us physical enlightenment.
Listening to Erika made me realize that I have a relationship with my plants in my garden. Conversely, I have lived in my house for over a dozen years and would never say that I have a relationship with my house. Outside, however, I have interacted with my plants through the five senses whether for years, or in recent plantings, for this year only. They have all, however, grown like my own children have grown in this space, a typical suburban plot in Virginia.
I have trained the peas up the trellis, wrapped the passion flower vines around the banister, re-positioned the morning glory to get full sun, and moved many plants to other places in the garden where they could get more water or more sun to be happier.
I have enjoyed the taste and nutrition of fresh vegetables such as beans, squash, peppers and fruits such as raspberries, goji berries, and ground cherries. I even enjoy the relaxing herbal teas made with holy basil, pineapple sage, and roselle. I have enjoyed the smell of fruity melons, pungent rosemary, and sweet hyacinths. While I am picking vegetables in the garden, I hear that satisfying “thunk” when a large red tomato falls to the ground while bees buzz around the zinnias and marigolds. My ornamental grasses rustle in the wind and the birds squabble over the seeds on the dried flower heads.
I have the plants’ cries for water, met their needs for fertilizer, and provided support with bamboo stakes and trellises. I grow many plants from seed, constantly nurturing them inside under lights until they are mature enough to be on their own outside in the ground.
People might think of this as “work” but for me as a gardener and horticulturist it is about having 200 friends who live directly outside my house (some actually in my house). I am always thinking of my friends as I think of my family: are they okay, is it too hot or too cold for them, do they have enough water, do they need food?
Although some people may not be interested in this type of “work,” they too benefit from plants, especially when they visit a garden. The impact of nature on our senses, on our being, is overwhelming and can be and should be championed as the positive experience it clearly is for most everyone. That is the value that gardens and the act of gardening can provide.