What Happens When One Walks in the Garden

I believe in gardens, not as magical fairy lands with gnomes and smoking caterpillars on toadstools (though I wouldn’t kick them out) but as places in which we should appreciate as fully as possible. We should use them to grow food, of course, and we should also use them to grow medicine. But, that’s not all. Gardens have the ability to teach us about the world, how plants, animals and humans can interact successfully. Gardens also teach us about the value of patience, the cost of impatience and the myriad effects good and bad choices can produce.

But, what I like most about gardens is being in them. I like to look at the plants. I like to check how the soil is doing, where the veggies are growing best or maybe where they’ve popped up unexpectedly. I like to see how system designs have helped or failed and then think about how they might be adjusted. I like to note the mulch breaking down, notice the strange sweet smells wafting, and find a plant suddenly bursting up. Actually, being in the garden every day, paying attention to it, is a bit magical.

That’s why I find myself taking quick walks through them nearly every evening, even though I’ve worked there in the morning. I just want to visit, maybe sip a cup of coffee while I sit on the benches here and there to stare at the beds, celebrate in how the okra has perked up or despair in the tiny cucumbers that are rotting on the vine. I like to walk every morning to start the day, checking for anything that might have happened overnight. I like to walk in the evening to come up with ideas for what might be next.

Sharing the Walk

I believe this—the walk—is an integral part to gardening well, at least for me, and it’s a part of why I enjoy the whole process so much. Permaculture design, especially in vegetable and herb gardens, promotes the idea of what space isn’t used for path should be used for growing (or creating biodiversity, such as ponds, rockeries, etc.). But, within designs and when working with people on techniques, we often forget to stress the importance of the paths. Maybe we do as swales or being on contour but not with regards to walking them.

Just recently, two local interns from a nearby vocational school have joined us on the farm, and being teenagers, a bit aloof and equally sparse with effort, they are quite literal and sometimes careless with the jobs we give them. So far, their jobs have included gathering leaves, mulching gardens, preparing beds for planting, and repairing some simple garden borders. It’s should be noted: All they do is obligingly done without complaint, but each job has required a second effort, on someone’s part, to get it done completely.

Walking by the New Beds, photo by Emma Gallagher
Walking by the New Beds, photo by Emma Gallagher

Unsurprisingly, their attention to detail has left us wary of them handling more delicate jobs like planting seedlings (not seeds but seedlings that we’ve spent considerable time on), but I have also come to realize that perhaps part of what’s missing is the subtleties of the walk. We’ve given them the tour, but I’ve not taken them on the walk in the morning, let them into the quiet space where the work of the garden is appreciation and contemplation, using a different form of organic matter entirely.

It is on the walks, both the morning and the evening, that the upcoming tasks develop. They are when I notice the mulch has grown thin. They are when I see that bed is going ragged, that plants are dying off or drying up or getting overrun with weeds. They are when I notice empty spaces or see how water catchments are working. They are when I see what’s nearly ready, what’s in need of repair, and what could otherwise use attention. Perhaps it’s in the recognizing of the need for these small chores that we come to do them more completely and with an inspired disposition.

A Greater Purpose

While I do these assessments on my walks, I think of the time as more than just an accounting for what needs to be done. As a matter of fact, while the morning is generally meant as a short observational to-do list, in the evening, my compiling of this list happens only incidentally, a second-nature habit of being in the garden. I actually just go to be there, even if only for a few minutes. I might see a flashy bird or catch a flower in bloom or enjoy a breeze blown just so. It’s meant for the greater purpose of personal enjoyment.

Gardens, permaculture and otherwise, are undoubtedly tied to the business of cultivating plants, hopefully with a lot of food-producers in the mix, but that’s not all there is to them. Or, it doesn’t have to be. I also like to think that I’m creating edible parks of a sort, and consequently, I include benches, ponds, beautiful pieces of wood, insect hotels, spirals, textures and all manner of difference and edges to keep the eye and mind busy, or sometimes lost at complete ease.

And, in the end, it’s this aspect that—I seem to be saying in different ways these days—makes garden designs a little more successful as food-producing and living spaces. When we want to be in the garden, when walking (and sitting) there is a way of winding down or meditating on the day (beginning and end), then we both take care of it more passionately and are more deeply in tune with it. Undoubtedly, the interns are still thinking of it all as work, as they have learned to with agriculture’s factory rows and toiling, but I want them to see it as creating something to believe in, a real piece of magic.

Stopping for Lemongrass, photo by Emma Gallagher
Stopping for Lemongrass, photo by Emma Gallagher

Tomorrow, I’m hoping to take them on a walk.

Feature Photo: Sitting for a Spell, photo by Emma Gallagher

Jonathon Engels

The financially unfortunate combination of travel enthusiast, freelance writer, and vegan gardener, Jonathon Engels whittled and whistled himself into a life that gives him cause to continually scribble about it. He has lived as an expat for over a decade, worked in nearly a dozen countries, and visited dozens of others in the meantime, subjecting the planet to a fiery mix of permaculture, music, and plant-based cooking. More of his work can be found at Jonathon Engels: A Life About.

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