Monday, August 3, 2009

Lessons from the garden: Weeding, pruning, and thinning

When I first began gardening, I thought mostly about adding to the garden (that is, putting in plants), but a big part of gardening involves subtracting from the garden through weeding, pruning and thinning. These are still the tasks I have trouble with, but they are important components in all aspects of life.
  • Weeding: Weeding is about eliminating unwanted volunteer plants. Weeds are constantly cropping up, and they have a tendency to crowd out the desirable plants, leaching away water and nutrients and creating a messy look to the garden. So we pull them up. The lesson here is to be vigilant in looking for weeds in our own lives. Are there projects or commitments or activities or habits that you don't want, that are stealing energy and time from your goals and priorities? If so, it may be time to uproot and eliminate those unwanted aspects of your life. But remember that something may seem like a weed to one person, but not to another. I am determined to uproot every pokeweed plant in my garden, but I have a friend who loves to watch the birds feast on its berries. To me it is a weed, but not to her. Just because something may seem like a waste of time to others, doesn't mean you must eliminate it -- you are the only one who can determine whether it is unwanted in your life. And sometimes, the unintentional plants are a delightful contribution to the garden -- I'm happy to see the petunias that re-seeded from last year's plants, even though I didn't intend for them to be there. Just because something is unplanned, doesn't mean that it is necessarily unwanted.
  • Pruning: Even desirable plants need to be cut back from time to time. Not only do we cut away the dead wood, but we cut them back to make them smaller, to train them to a particular shape, to encourage more vigorous blooming. Pruning helps maintain healthy plants and keeps them from overgrowing the space. Yet I find it difficult to motivate myself to prune -- the holly gets bigger and bigger, but isn't that good? The rose brambles take over an entire corner of the garden, but how could that be bad? Yet now the holly is pressing against the house, and that spectacular rose now shades the lavender and coneflower. Even desirable parts of our lives can become too big and unwieldy and may begin to crowd out other goals. Sometimes we need to check the balance in our life, to make sure that some activities or commitments haven't exceeded the space we meant to allocate to them. I have always enjoyed baking, but at one point, I had so many people on my holiday cookie list that I ended up baking cookies for days on end. What had been enjoyable became a chore; I needed to scale back, to prune. Is there something in your life that has grown too big?
  • Thinning: Every year, I put in vegetables from seed: carrots, kohlrabi, radishes. I sprinkle the seeds in the ground and am rewarded with rows of tiny seedlings. This is when I'm supposed to thin the plants -- to remove enough of the seedlings so that the remaining ones have space to grow. Every year, I resist thinning. How can I remove perfectly healthy plants and throw them on the compost heap? I pull a few and then give up, figuring the rest of them can fight it out. But by being unwilling to thin out the plants, I doom the whole lot of them to become thin and pallid, unable to develop fully. This really is the hardest lesson for me. I want to be able to do everything, to teach and research and sew and bead and dance and read and garden and cook and bake and write and take art classes and learn Arabic . . . but I can't do it all. If I try, I end up doing a little of everything rather poorly, or taking on commitments I can't fulfill. I have to be willing to prioritize, to thin out the activities that are less important, so that I can achieve my goals. I struggle with this constantly, and I keep hoping that I don't have to thin. Maybe all those carrots will do just fine on their own. Right? The garden keeps trying to teach me to cut back, to eliminate, to clear space for what matters. Maybe one day I'll actually learn that lesson.

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