Why Do I Garden

Gardening can be hard.  

Case in point:  I put time, effort and money into preparing the soil, buying and carefully starting seeds indoors in 6-packs, transplanting them outside, watering and fertilizing the little plants for months, protecting them from the deer….and then a gopher eats literally the entire plant right before harvest.  This exact scenario happened to me on our 1/2 acre permaculture garden at Willow Springs with my basil plants.  Every day I would go into the garden and count my diminishing number of plants.  When only 5 remained from an original 50, out of frustration, I dug them up and put them into pots.  In addition, we gardeners also have to contend with potential insects problems, plant diseases, soil deficiencies, maintaining the irrigation systems, unexpected weather and keeping weeds under control.  

So why do I garden when I can buy bunch of basil at the store for a fraction of the time and effort required to grow my own? 

Below I give my “bullet-point” reasons on why I garden, and then follow-up each point with a bit more in-depth discussion:

  • Gardening makes me happy and brings significant health benefits
  • I am creating a sustainable healthy ecosystem of soil, plants, pollinators and wildlife (see my next blog “How to create healthy soil” as I explore this topic)
  • I Increase Food Security
Trish planting Asparagus
Planting the asparagus bed

Health Benefits:  There is something inspiring about working in my garden on a warm day, the sun on my skin and moist crumbly soil between my fingers.  I’m grateful that my body can still do the physical work of digging and planting, bending, lifting and weeding.  To my surprise, I learned that gardening is in the top ten best ways to exercise. It builds strength, works my muscles and helps me to stretch and remain limber. Besides, I don’t have to drive anywhere to exercise nor pay for a gym membership. (I do like to jog to get the aerobic exercise though).   But the health benefits of gardening go so much further than just the physical exertion required – the soil itself provides health benefits! Teeming with life, there are more microbes in one teaspoon of healthy soil than there are people on earth.  How does this relate to your health?  When you work in your garden (unbeknownst to you) these microscopic soil organisms are inhaled and ingested into your body.  Scientists have made a positive connection between soil microbes and human health, including our gut health, auto-immune system, and our emotional/mental health.  For example, the soil microbe Mycobacterium vaccae increases cognitive ability, lowers stress and improves concentration.  Other microbes activate immune cells that stimulate brain serotonin production – the hormone that creases a sense of calm and joy. 

The research about soil microbes is fascinating and astonishing! So although I am not aware of what micro-organisms I “ingest” during my time in the garden, I can attest to feeling happy after spending time in the garden (research suggests it can last up to 3 weeks).  The implications from this research are huge – school gardening programs are SO much more than just getting kids outside and learning to plant seeds.  Letting kids play in the garden with you and make mud pies is way more important than keeping their clothes clean.   Getting out in the garden can keep you in shape, and literally improve your health and happiness. 

Newly hatched preying mantis

Creating a Sustainable Healthy Ecosystem: The most important thing an organic garden does is to grow soil and with it the trillions of micro-organisms like bacteria, viruses, fungi, and protozoa.  The soil is the living building block that THEN sustains larger ecosystems.   Worms, invertebrates and insects multiply, your plants thrive, pollinators arrive and your garden is filled with bees, butterflies and insects.  The birds and bats come and eat the insects and worms, the foxes and owls eat the gophers and voles.  And yes, these critters can present challenges to your veggies but they become manageable because there is a balance, and with experience you learn to find that balance. When I find worms in the garden it’s exciting; not the worm itself but what the worm represents – healthy soil.  I love that I am creating wildlife habitat in my garden – and I watch for who shows up:  maybe a newly hatched tiny preying mantis or gorgeous garden spider.  I’ve watched bluebirds scratching in the soil after I’ve dug, and hawks perching on the fence posts, searching for prey.  The garden isn’t only about growing veggies, it becomes an important part of your ecosystem.  Do you enjoy birds?  Ninety-six per cent of nesting birds must feed their babies high protein insects/caterpillars for food, and your garden becomes an important spot for these busy parents to find food for their hungry nestlings.  For example, raising one brood of chickadees requires 6,000 caterpillars!  At the end of my day, I am personally nourished by spending time in the garden from the joy of finding living creatures along the way to taking a moment to bird watch or stepping back and feeling great satisfaction from my accomplishments.

My garden connects me with the cycles of nature on a deep level.  In springtime the soil warms up and the garden starts to come to life. The fruit trees explode in colorful blooms.   The Hawthorne trees are covered in white flowers and literally “buzz” as the bees convene. The fragrance of the locust blooms wafts on the air and is amazing.  Perennials and bulbs appear without me having to do anything! Meanwhile I have started my annual seeds in the greenhouse to give them a head start before planting them out in the garden. I watch the compost temperature rise from the heat produced from millions of microbes munching away on the organic matter.   I come inside and excitedly tell my husband that the compost reached 130 degrees. And yes, he looks at me with a blank stare, but he dutifully says he is excited for me.  This miracle compost will soon provide valuable nutrients for the garden. 

photos of plants
The herbs comfrey and valerian

Another great idea is to include native plants in your garden, as they provide pollinators and wildlife with the right nutrients at exactly the right time, benefitting your garden as a whole.  We also like to grow herbs such as comfrey, horseradish, valerian and elecampagne.  Comfrey especially loves our garden, and I welcome it even though some consider it invasive.  It DOES come up everywhere, and most of the plants are actually pulled out and added to the compost.  But the beauty of comfrey is that it is deep-rooted and brings up nutrients from deep in the ground to it’s leaves, and when those leaves decompose in the compost they become available to the garden.  I also use comfrey’s leaves and roots to make a healing salve that is useful for bruises, sprains and inflammations.  Comfrey has a long long history of medicinal use going back thousands of years.   Just like cycles of the garden, when I harvest and use my medicinal plants I feel connected to the generations of women who have made their own healing medicine throughout human history.  

After the last day of frost has passed it’s time to move the small starts from the greenhouse and plant them out in the garden.  It’s fun to plan where they are going to live, their neighbors (companion planting for mutual benefit!) and put them into the ground…and yes I talk to them as well…  As spring moves into summer the plants get bigger and set fruit. The garden kicks into high gear.  Soon we are checking the tomatoes every day wondering, “When will those tomatoes be ready?” 

Garden goodies

Finally, the first sun-ripened home-grown tomato is harvested and Oh My Goddess is it worth it!  The garden is a place to eat now as I work – fresh green beans and sun gold tomatoes are my favorite.  Berries are plucked as I walk by.  Dinners of pasta with freshly-picked veggies become frequent.  Then a flood of zucchini and tomatoes and apples and pears and more produce than we can eat comes in daily.  I move into canning, freezing and de-hydrating season as I make apple sauce, jams, pickles, and can jars of tomatoes.  

Making pickles

Fall arrives as I continue my canning and filling the root cellar.  The garden keeps producing as long as the weather holds.  When the first freeze of winter comes, there’s a sadness to see all the plants that have given so much all summer to suddenly come to an abrupt end.  But it’s also a relief to put the garden to bed after the frenzy of harvest.  Winter is a time to rest.

Increasing Food Security: Our garden at Willow Springs is about 1/2 acre, and consists of both “permanent agriculture” and the regular annual plants.  The term used to describe this combination is “permaculture garden.”   Our permanent plants include fruit trees of all types, grapes, kiwis, Jerusalem artichokes, rhubarb, asparagus, and berries such as raspberries (grown in a spiral!), strawberries, goji berries, blueberries, elderberries.  We grow annual summer veggies such as tomatoes, cucumbers, beans, peppers, eggplant, squash, lettuce, broccoli, etc.  We save our own “open-pollinated” seed as much as possible to grow varieties that are well suited to our particular micro-climate and soil. Although our garden isn’t enough to provide for us 100% of the time, with our chickens, garden, greenhouse and the root cellar we have a reliable and affordable source of food much of the year.

We created our Permaculture Education Garden not just for ourselves, but also as a place for guests to connect with nature.  Although they may not be here to watch the garden cycle through the seasons, our hope is that while they are here they can wander through and enjoy something happening at that moment.  Maybe it’s just to sit and enjoy the flowers and butterflies, or pick some tomatoes to enjoy during their stay.  Many people have not had the the opportunity to garden, or maybe it’s just never been possible with their busy schedule or living situation. So Willow Springs is a new experience.  Our goal is simply for our guests to find some enjoyment from the garden in whatever form that takes.   

I’ve been gardening most of my adult like (about 30 years) and it never gets old.  There is always something new to try or learn.  It’s a process to understand your particular soil, micro-climate, and the local “wildlife”. Failures will naturally happen, but with each failure I learn a little bit more. I return home with my muscles tired and my fingernails full of dirt, yet I’m fulfilled. The joy of being in the garden far out-weighs the challenges of the day.