Lessons learned from gardening: A personal essay

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Ashley Soliman/Staff

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We have all seen those cheesy text posts — the ones that minimize the intricate process of a caterpillar turning into a butterfly into three steps, preaching something about giving yourself time to grow. A hallmark of these inspirational messages is the disconnect between reading about growth and actually experiencing it, making their advice seem like banal truisms until you live through the growth yourself. After trying my hand at gardening this summer, I experienced the transformation of cliche life lessons into personal growth and am taking you, dear reader, along for the ride. (Disclaimer: I in no way claim to be a gardening expert and am probably doing many things incorrectly *see lesson #1*.)  

Lesson #1: Enjoying the journey

It was not long after I humored the thought of starting my own garden that I fell down the metaphorical rabbit hole of educational gardening content. From expert gardening blogs to tutorial videos, I wanted so quickly to soak up all of the plant knowledge that the world wide web had to offer me. When is the best season to grow tomatoes? What crops can be grown in containers? Where should I plant my seeds? How much sun is too much sun? What is seed starting? How do I compost? Frantically typing into my search bar, I was only able to make a dent in the laundry list of questions. I felt under-qualified and already worried about something that didn’t even exist yet (a common theme in my life). 

Before I could talk myself out of the idea entirely, I picked up some cheap seeds and soil from a hardware store and an empty cookie tray from the recycling bin. Pumpkin and zucchini in one tray, basil and snap peas in the second and tomato and cucumber in the last, I set my makeshift seed starters under my windowsill and oriented my bed lamps to illuminate them after the sunset. 

I waited, oftentimes impatiently, for sprouts to poke through the dirt. One popped up, then a second, third, fourth — their little buds glistening from their daily dose of stale spray bottle water. I felt so proud of the baby sprouts, taking them as a symbol that my green thumb was in the works.  Had I listened to my self-doubt and allowed the gardening knowledge gap to intimidate me from starting something new, I would have not only missed the opportunity to witness the magic of plant growth but also the magic of personal growth along the way.  

Lesson #2: Learning to cope with casualties

In about two weeks, the sprouts had grown roots sprawling across the bottom of the clear container, and it was time to plant them outside. The hot Southern California sun had other ideas, however, some days blazing over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. To acclimate my plants from the cool temperatures of my bedroom to the outside scorch, I began by putting my cucumber and tomato tray on the patio once the sun was no longer directly overhead, remembering to frequently water.  I peered at the tray through the window one evening, only to see shriveled remains in the spot where my cucumbers had stood tall hours before. 

Despite constantly telling my friends, family and myself that I was picking up gardening as a hobby, this is just for fun, it was obvious that I was, and continue to be, emotionally invested in the well-being of my plants. I didn’t cry or shake my fists at the sky, but I needed to find a way to reconcile the loss of something that I had enjoyed taking care of. Enter the healing processes of horticulture.  

It was only my first time trying to grow my own food, which has to be grounds for some mistakes along the way, including overexposure. Recognizing that I am allowed to garden imperfectly was comforting to me, that I don’t have to be a master of the art of gardening to enjoy the peace it provides to my life. Part of the process was also understanding what went wrong and how it can go better for the next tray of seedlings. Perhaps most important was understanding that, like in life, there are things that are out of your realm of control.   

Lesson #3: Remember to take care of yourself, too (my cheesiest life lesson)

The good news is that my pumpkins, zucchinis and snap peas enjoy direct sunlight most days and have  all survived the transplant into their backyard containers. I try to keep a watering schedule sometime after 9 a.m. but before 12 p.m., depending on what time I wake up, filling up an old jug of water and showering my plants with plenty of water. 

Admiring the texture and curvature of the vines and budding flowers, I am mesmerized by the fact that one tiny seed can grow so massively and abundantly all on its own. Despite being covered in ash and insects nibbling the edges of the leaves, they have shown me resilience. I wish I could remember to be as kind to myself as I am to my plants every day. 

Caring for my plants has become part of a personal ritual that makes me feel more capable and empathetic as a human being. No, learning to garden has not miraculously given me the answers to life, but it has made me think about the ways that I care for myself. Self-love can exist in more than just the physical sense of balanced meals and face masks, and gardening brought to the surface those emotional aspects of practicing self-care, which I had been neglecting. Tending to the needs of my garden forced me to confront a question I had become so skilled at evading: What does a watering routine for myself look like?

Contact Ashley Soliman at [email protected].