Inch by Inch, Row by Row: Life Lessons from the Garden

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Almost 2 months ago when I told my family I would be leaving to go work outside on an estate in Ireland for a little while, they were incredulous. To them, and friends, and many others, it didn’t fit their image of me. They couldn’t see why I felt a need to do this. But to me, a lot of my childhood was spent outside and a lot of my lifehood is spent searching for something, anything, new to learn.

So that’s why I did it.

I want to once again say thank you to Tony, the head gardener I had the privilege of working with at Inish Beg. We had many conversations over my 6 weeks in West Cork and while some days those conversations were more oriented towards my obsessions with potatoes and Ice Road Truckers, most days they were of a more reflective and thought provoking nature. Whether or not Tony was aware of all the cogs turning and perspectives shifting in my head is another story, but turn and shift they did and this post is only a handful of the ones I took away from it all.

A few weeks ago I watched a movie called “A Little Chaos” which is about the construction of the gardens at Versailles. Not only is the original score almost unbearably beautiful (highly recommend giving the title track a listen), but the story and design of the movie itself were really moving for me. There was a particular quote in the beginning of the film that struck me:

“God put us first into a garden, and when we lost Eden we were fated to search and reinvent it again.”

Maybe without the context of the film this isn’t so moving for you, but it’s definitely a notion that has stayed with me since I heard it. I love being outside, I’ve always loved being outside, and as a relatively young person a lot of my life now feels like a search for the places I feel most comfortable in.

In a way, this trip was a piece of my search for Eden – and here is what I found.


Give back what’s taken | bare root planting

I’m gonna kick this paragraph off by saying bare root planting is hard but it was probably the thing I enjoyed the most. Before this trip I had planted one single tree in my lifetime, on a study abroad trip, and it was quite a different lesson. People aren’t the only things that destroy nature (though I will definitely agree they’re the largest cause). The elements, disease, plain old coincidence and circumstance – they all have a hand to play. It became a sort of fundamental importance to put back into the earth whatever was taken, regardless of the cause. In the case of self-seeding plants, Mother Nature might just do it herself. But in the case of trees and hedge and fruits and veg a little human help is probably greatly appreciated.

Give and take has always been around, I’ve heard people saying it all my life. But now I see that it applies to all facets: to the things we consume and create as well as the friendships and kinships and small ships and big ships and what? Where was I going with that? Oh yeah, kindness finds its roots in giving – so that it can grow better branches to take from.

Keep it simple | small garden beds

Massive scale is hardly something I’ll be able to balance in my own future gardening endeavors, but that doesn’t mean I don’t still want to enjoy fresh foods, herbs, and flowers. Keeping it simple doesn’t always have to translate to keeping it small, that just happens to be how my own personal garden will manifest itself. In order to avoid feeling overwhelmed or discouraged it’s important to remember that a little can go a long way. So I’ll be starting with the basics: potatoes and maybe a flower or two.

Aside from gardens, there are a lot of aspects of my life that I want to simplify. I feel that there is so much overcomplication these days and that’s a huge stress trigger for me. I hate wasted space, I hate lugging around a huge closet of things I don’t even wear, I hate trying to make convoluted plans just to spend quality time with friends… so it’s all getting nixed! Simple eating, simple living, simple wearing, simple being – I’m here on out making the conscious effort.

Have vision | the winter season

Now, arriving to work on a garden in the winter season is not exactly the best idea if you want to see luscious, blooming flowers and fresh, green shrubbery. Most of what I worked with was brown and dampened, but I was conditioned into a sense of remembering that life was still in full swing all around us. Just because a plant was brown or wasn’t visible didn’t mean that it was dead. Winter is not a deadly season, it’s a resting season. Whenever I learned new plants or got assigned new tasks, we’d talk through what those plants would become or why those tasks were instrumental to promoting their growth. Creating those visions made me excited for the things I was doing because I had a better grasp on what was to come.

I consider myself a person with a healthy amount of creativity and a big imagination, but I also know that I struggle with preconception. If I’m working on something new, it’s fairly easy for me to open my mind but when it’s something I think I know and understand already, breaking down the walls to create that vision becomes more difficult. There are a million different adjectives you can use to describe this quality of myself (hey now, I heard that one!), but let’s just stick with visionistically impaired.

Work the lens both ways | the brassica bed & pruning the Rosa Rugosas

What I mean by that is step back just as much as you zoom in. The Rosa Rugosas were probably my favorite plants of the entire trip, and it’s a shame that I won’t get to see them in bloom. When I did a little research I discovered that they are not in fact a spell from Harry Potter but are actually noted in the US for being a tough dune plant, highly concentrated along the Northeast coastline. Pruning them, however, is relatively challenging considering the entirety of their branches are covered in small thorns. In gardening, there is a fine balance between the aesthetic and the practical. You have to be empirical in pruning back the roses because you want them to be healthy, however you also have to be conscious of the look and shape they will produce after said pruning. AKA you’ve got to step away every few cuts to make sure you haven’t lost sight of the bigger picture.

The brassica bed was a place I put a lot of work into my last few weeks. The bed itself was pretty much the only outdoor space we had providing fresh vegetables for the winter months, before the new seeds were sown and the new plants grown. Each week we’d pick through broccoli and cauliflower, parsley and wild chives, kale and assorted rainbow chards. In no way was the general health of any of these plants attributable to me, but I happily took on preparing and maintaining them for a bit. Pulling a few weeds, cutting off the dead or slug-eaten leaves, and giving the soil a good turn were all relatively minor tasks yet they made such a huge difference in the appearance of the bed. When stepping back suddenly the greens looked greener and the since-staked slumped over broccolis looked taller. I contented myself with knowing that for such small modifications, they seemed to make a world of difference in the grand scheme.

Be gentle… | encountering bugs & new growth

Honestly, I’m terrified of bugs. When I was little my tolerance had a hard stop at snails and worms. Hopefully it isn’t news to you that gardens have all manners of bugs but I had to learn to suck it up and accept that a lot of them were on our side (although the slugs had to go). Apparently bumblebees hibernate! They bury themselves in the soil over the winter and I came across several while working through the strawberry beds. The Cassie of yesteryears would have likely screamed and run away but knowing the importance, especially in the general population decline, of those bees I tried my best to leave them as undisturbed as possible… or at least move them to a safer spot of soil. I found myself feeling a lot more compassion towards bugs than I ever have before, so we’ll see how long that lasts.

Bumblebees weren’t the only things I had to be careful of though. New growth was everywhere, and I just had to learn how to look for it. What little gardening skill I brought with me on this trip culminated in the brute force method of weeding – tug that sucker out as hard as you can and rip at whatever is left. Wrong! I had to kick that habit upon arrival because in this garden, there was a necessity to be gentle. That new growth was usually hidden deep under all of the weeds I was clearing away, or even looked like a weed itself, so it became important to take my time and use whatever gentleness I could muster. There was a satisfaction that came from slowly working the entirety, roots and all, of a weed out of the ground and leaving the beautiful new plants safely undisturbed beside it. There is a gentleness and compassion that is warranted with even the most imperceptible of things – including the weeds. Make of that what you will.

… but not delicate pretty much everything!

Again, Ireland in the winter is not a forgiving climate and I wasn’t even there for the worst of it. That’s not to say that I was out battering the elements for the sake of tidying up a few dead stalks of parsley, but I still had to learn to embrace a little rain and mud. I was excited about getting my hands dirty for once. This whole experience was meant to push the comfort zones of my physical, mental, and emotional states – and I’m happy to report that it did. I worked hard at removing hesitation from anything I was asked to do because that’s how you learn and grow as a person (or something). I got comfortable with the dirt and the mud, the shoveling and the wheelbarrowing. Not being super strong didn’t stop me from trying as best I could and I like to think that I made my coworkers proud… because I can definitely say that I made me proud of me.

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A panorama from inside the Walled Garden. That big bed in the left-center is the brassica bed I worked on!

2 thoughts on “Inch by Inch, Row by Row: Life Lessons from the Garden

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