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Balancing gardening illusions and disillusions

“When we sow a seed, we plant a narrative of future possibility. It is an action of hope. Not all the seeds we sow will germinate, but there is a sense of security that comes from knowing you have seeds in the ground.”

— Sue Stuart-Smith, “The Well-Gardened Mind,” 2020

Jerry and I have had a lot of fun, and a few disappointments, growing vegetables and herbs in raised beds inside our hoop house in Bandon. We had a terrific crop of cool-weather leafy greens and peas in the spring, and a wonderfully tasty and long-lasting crop of cherry tomatoes this summer. The cucumbers and summer squash we planted were a bust, though, and I suspect it’s because the soil did not stay warm enough for these heat-loving plants to thrive.

Since this is the first year we’ve grown anything in the hoop house, it’s all an experiment to see what will grow well in the particular microclimate of this enclosed space, which does not have artificial heat or light. Earlier, we sowed seeds for fall and overwintering crops with the hope that enough sunlight will still reach the hoop house to sustain the plants.

We’re not at all sure this will be the case, but as Stuart-Smith writes, it was our action of hope. We felt a sense of security just from planting seeds in the ground. Many of the seeds have germinated, and if they do grow to maturity and produce food, Jerry and I will high-five each other and think, “We made that happen.”

According to Stuart-Smith, who has a fascinating background in English literature, psychiatry and gardening, the feeling of making things happen — a sense of agency — is one of the allures of gardens and gardening. Working in a garden provides a healthy balance of control and letting go so nature can do its thing.

“Shaping a bit of reality is empowering, but crucially in the garden, we are never completely in control,” she notes. “The general rule in life is that we thrive best in situations where we have some control but not complete control.”

When I read this, I thought about how we’ve all lost a sense of control from the COVID-19 pandemic, record-breaking heat waves and months of wildfire smoke. Whatever our differences in responding to a loss of agency, we all share an emotional need to recapture it somehow.

Stuart-Smith asserts that human motivation comes from a healthy dose of creative illusion — the belief that we are more powerful than we actually are. Among gardeners, having a “green thumb” is an illusory term for people who seem to have unusual power to grow plants successfully. All gardeners believe they have at least a little bit of a green thumb, or are capable of attaining one, in order to maintain motivation for gardening despite failures.

On the other hand, a certain amount of disillusionment is beneficial, too. The reality of a garden is that not all plants will thrive, despite our best efforts; even “green thumbs” can have a bad growing season. It’s humbling, and freeing, to recognize our limitations in controlling the natural world. Stuart-Smith observes, “…paradoxically, experiencing both illusion and disillusion, empowerment and disempowerment, doesn’t make us give up — it only spurs us on.”

This week I’m taking time to consider my gardening successes and failures and, in doing so, balance my creative illusions and disillusions. I am not a perfect gardener, and sometimes I’m not even a very good gardener, but I know that with every seed sown, I’m planting a narrative of future possibility.

. . .

Many gardeners have been disillusioned by the drought and local water shortages. If you are one of them, then you might want to check out an upcoming workshop, “Be the Beaver; Plant the Rain!” hosted by Lion Waxman, regenerative landscape consultant, designer and educator. The three-day workshop will take place form 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Nov. 5 and 6, and from 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Nov. 7. Friday and Saturday sessions will be held at La Medicina Farm in Talent, and Sunday’s tour and planting will be at the Platz Project site in Murphy.

Workshop participants will learn site observation and assessment skills, and how to apply regenerative design principles and techniques to retain water in the landscape, replenish groundwater, develop drought tolerance, mitigate fire, restore damaged watersheds and build ecological resilience.

Cost of the full workshop is $295 until Oct. 15 and $325 thereafter. For more information, visit www.goodearthgardens1.com/.

Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. Email her at Rnowak39@gmail.com. For more about gardening, check out her podcasts and videos at https://mailtribune.com/podcasts/the-literary-gardener.

My gardening to-do list this week

• Save seeds from vegetables and perennial flowers. For example, I’m saving seeds from my blackberry lilies (Iris domestica); this perennial flower is easily grown from seed and will flower the first year if planted in fall or early spring. Some of the rhizomes also need dividing.

• Start collecting fallen leaves in a pile to shred and use for mulching.

• Collect garden debris for composting and fermenting for soil amendments.

• Assess garden successes and failures and plan for next steps.

• Cover fall/overwintering seedlings to provide protection as needed.