Over the past week, I have had three meaningful conversations about my motivations for gardening and starting Diglings. These conversations gave me a chance to reflect and articulate why I do what I do. To be honest, it’s not always clear in my head and on many muddled mornings, I wake up asking, “Why am I doing this?”.
People assume it’s because I love gardening as a hobby, or I want to grow pesticide-free food for my family. Strange, but gardening has never felt like a hobby to me. My hobbies demand much less out of me physically, mentally and emotionally. My hobbies are much more leisurely – things like reading fiction, dancing, hiking, wining and dining.
If my goal were simply to feed my family pesticide-free food, it would be much easier on my back to support our local farmers, and buy from the ever growing range of organic produce available these days. I do not particularly enjoy toiling in our hot and humid climate in order to put pesticide-free food on our table, although it is reassuring and satisfying to grow my own and know exactly what went into it.
To be clear, I do enjoy many aspects of gardening, particularly edible gardening. Otherwise I couldn’t have done it for 3 years and counting now. Here are a few things that I especially enjoy.
The herbs and veggies that I have successfully grown have tasted better than anything I could buy at the supermarket. The flavours are usually deeper, fuller and more complex. This is not just because they are super fresh. Robust flavour is the character of nutrient-dense food. I follow and teach a growing process that builds up humus, microbes and minerals in the soil, which in turn builds up nutrient density in the food plants.
I enjoy padding into my garden just after dawn to savour the stillness, coolness and freshness in the air that can only be experienced at that particular hour of the day. I watch the light change and absorb the glistening dew-drenched beauty around me.
I also half-enjoy solving problems in the garden. I say half-enjoy because I do carry some trepidation as I wander around doing spot checks for pest-damaged and diseased plants. While I have learnt that pests and diseases are actually good things because they function to remove unhealthy plants that are not suitable for human consumption, I am attached to my plants. Whenever I discover a sick plant, I often react like a mother to a sick child – I feel sad and I want to nurture her back to health. Still, these problems stimulate the geek in me to broaden and deepen my understanding of soil and plant science. I do enjoy that challenge.
Sometimes, if I let myself pause long enough from the gardening problems and chores to enjoy the garden as it is, I start to marvel again and again at how sun, sand, clay, humus, minerals, microbes, earthworms, air and water mix and interact to give life and give it abundantly. There’s magic and mystery in that.
But I sense a deeper yearning behind my gardening drive. And I think it’s connected to feelings of wonder and enchantment that have stayed with me till today, after I visited three very special gardens in Australia where my family lived for a few years.
The first garden is the Heronswood Garden in Mornington Peninsula, Victoria. It was here that I beheld for the first time the whimsical beauty and sensory pleasure of edible landscaping. I was captivated. Just look at these pictures.
The second garden that lingers in me is actually a small farm in Tasmania where my family spent a summer as WWOOFers (Willing Workers On Organic Farm). We worked in the vegetable garden and orchard in exchange for food and lodging. While harvesting in the orchard, we being greedy berry-crazy Malaysians that we were and still are, stuffed ourselves with berries till we got sick in the stomach. Besides that, what left a deep impression on me was how the farmer took such great pride and pains in blending aesthetics with functionality.
The third garden is an arty show garden called Wychwood, not far from the farm. The moment I stepped into the garden, I knew it was loved and created to offer love. I experienced solace and wonder all around me. There were so many intriguing design elements hiding around a corner, at the corner of my eye, on the horizon, just underfoot. We laid our picnic mat down by a creek at the edge of the garden and indulged our senses.
These gardens have shaped the way my husband and I design and grow our garden. Sure, our garden is incomparably small in scale, sophistication and accomplishment, but their influence on us is clear to me now that I have dug out these pictures and written these words.
So why am I doing this? Is it because I love gardening that much? The truth is that I love gardens more than gardening in itself, but gardening is a skill that lets me make gardens. Memories and pictures of the three gardens, shimmering with beauty and enchantment, stir me to create my own garden with the same qualities.
So I continue to hone my gardening and growing skills in order to make beautiful, flavourful gardens that are also kinder to plants, animals (above and below ground) and people. The three gardens have given me a broader vision of the garden and the gardener. A garden is more than a space to produce food and flowers. It is a creative expression of the gardener. It is a space for art, science, play, therapy, education, beauty, mystery and wonder. And the gardener is somebody who transforms lifeless soils and soulless spaces into living soils and life-giving spaces.
That’s why I am a gardener.