Standing on revolutionary ground

By Trudy Duivenvoorden Mitic, June 2014

The garden is a pathway to a safer, better world.

Out in the garden I work the soil, divide perennials, pull weeds, spread compost, and let nature wash away the aches and scrapes that tag along with life and sometimes threaten to eclipse it. I’m fortunate to have a garden, a place where I can reconvene with calmness and well-being on days that threaten to bowl me over. I go unplugged, leaving behind the phone and all electronic devices. I am a child again, on my hands and knees peering into the heart of a frilly tulip, inhaling its extraordinary, citrus-tinged elixir. 

I know all winter that the spring bulbs are coming and yet their arrival is always a surprise, their colours against the backdrop of a garden just stirring out of hibernation always more intense than I remember. 

“The tulips are coming up,” I wrote to a terminally ill cousin in Holland in mid-March. It was a statement about rejuvenation that could not be tarnished by the darkness of cancer.

“Here too,” she emailed back. “I love them.” She was a teacher, a foster mom, an athlete and a lover of life. She died last month, only 46 years old. 

The news sent me to my garden for solace. The answers to life’s sorrows are no less elusive there, but at least the rawness gets burnished by evidence that the natural order is far more complex, powerful and perfect than I’ll ever know. I see it in the exquisite beauty of the apple blossom and the delicate perfection of emerging seedlings. I hear it in the birdsong, more exuberant this spring than in recent years, and in the breeze soughing through the maple tree. Nature knows far more than I ever will and that sits exceedingly well with me. 

The garden is my best antidote to sitting. Too much time on my duff—a writer’s greatest job hazard—is a deadly habit and the desk-bound hours sneak by all too easily. I can’t seem to muster up time (or inclination) for the gym, but I’ll rake moss or re-edge the flower beds or prune everything and dig out invasive weeds. Before I know it, I’ve worked for an hour or for most of the day. Often my thoughts get clarified in the process and as a bonus I’m genuinely hungry when mealtime arrives.   

My garden keeps me sane and resilient. When the six-o’clock news brings nothing but madness and the Earth begins to feel like a fragile orb, I step outside, grab a garden tool, dig in and hold on. Lately I’ve been hearing about gardening as an act of revolution, literally a grassroots resistance to the many and multi-pronged foibles of our times. Who knew that growing your own zucchini could be so defiant? Who knew there’d be such power in the self-reliant act of growing beans and carrots? Or nurturing a half-dozen kale or Swiss chard plants that will feed you through the winter and possibly for the next few seasons? I hoe my little row and marvel that I’m standing on revolutionary ground.

My garden is becoming a conservation site. Last year I began collecting some of my own seeds as a way to thumb my nose at Monsanto, that behemoth corporation that calls itself an agricultural entity but aspires to control the food supply by altering seeds enough to take them out of the public domain and then patenting them for their own exclusive enterprise. Dissident gardeners— meaning those of us who like retaining at least some control over what we grow—won’t take that lying down, and we don’t have to (yet). True-to-type and heirloom seeds are still available from local suppliers and at seed exchanges such as Seedy Saturdays. Seed saving instructions can be found online.

Mine is a restorative garden and this year I’m going to plant milkweed for the Monarch butterfly whose numbers have plummeted in recent years. The bright orange milkweed is the sole food source for the Monarch—one in every garden would make their yeoman migration between here and Mexico much less precarious. Seeds are available at West Coast Seeds: Look for Asclepias tuberosa in their online index. 

The garden is a teacher, a refuge, and so much more. It is a place for profound transcendence. It is a pathway to a safer, better world. 

Trudy Duivenvoorden Mitic is most at home in the garden and can't wait to read Des Kennedy's new book, Heart and Soil: The Revolutionary Good of Gardens.