Letter to a Young Gardener
by Rob Sproule
“There are no gardening mistakes, only experiments.”
-Janet Kilburn Phillips
This isn’t my usual column. You’ll find nothing here about killing aphids or the history of pansies. With each generation, fewer people are gardening. We’re becoming disconnected from the earth, and as we do, we’re not teaching our children there’s more genuine wonder to be had from an opening sunflower or a cup of pond water than all the apps in iTunes.
Why is this happening? Garden writers wring their hands incessantly over it, and as Garden Centre owners everywhere trip over themselves to make their websites mobile responsive and take Instagram pictures, I want to talk directly to the people who, deep in their gut, want to get their hands in the dirt and grow, but feel like they simply can’t do it.
Forget the Perfect Yard
I know how enthusiastic you are. I see it every day in the greenhouse. With your strollers, partners, parents, friends, or just dreams in tow, you look at the fresh blooming plants as if they’re bone china: to be seen and not touched. You come into the greenhouse because it’s solace for the senses. You come in to see, smell, and breate the oxygen in deep.
Your enthusiasm is what inspires me to reach out every day to kids and young families. I’m inspired everyday when I see you but I am also reminded that, lurking beneath the enthusiasm, there’s a memory of the plant you once killed and a picture of a garden you once saw, a garden that was perfect and how could you ever grow that.
In the gardening industry, we’re not empowering you like we should be. We’re bending over backwards to find the most perfect gardens, with the most immaculate plants to photograph for “inspiration”, picking the brown leaves off as we go. Gardening shouldn’t be about trying to achieve the perfect garden. It should be a sanctuary from the tyranny of perfection that stalks us daily.
Just as the bodies you see in magazines are more photoshop than real people, so too the perfect gardens you see are tended, manicured, and airbrushed. They’re put there to inspire, but too often the effect is to disempower.
Outside of magazines, I’ve seen gardens around Sherwood Park and Edmonton that leave me breathless, backyard sanctuaries that make me want to cancel my day, fish out my oft neglected Canadian novel and put my feet up under a shade tree. I also can’t remember one of these gardens belonging to young parents.
A showpiece garden is a part-time (sometimes upwards of full-time) job, and is usually a labour of love for a semi-retired or retired couple. Let them inspire you with an idea or two, but don’t try to recreate it, not with the kids tugging at your leg and supper on the stove.
Gardening is about connection, not perfection. Growing plants is a rare crossroads of beauty and functionality, a place where you can make a salad for your kids in the same place you go to take a much needed deep breath at a frantic day’s end. Planting a seed or small plant and watching it grow and bloom is an act of empowerment that satisfies a deep need that few other things can.
It’s about You
To garden is to use the earth to tell your story. Every seed you plant, stem you snip, and pea you pluck is another phrase in the story you’re telling, the story you learned to tell from your parents and that you’re teaching your children.
So don’t be intimidated by pictures of perfect yards. Listen to your gut telling you that feeling cool, moist earth between your fingers is a singular experience for you and your kids.
Be creative. Imagine that yours is the first garden in the world, and invent it however you want. You’re a nurturer; create a garden space that nurtures you, whatever that looks like. Make your garden a place where your kids can discover the wonder of nature, independently and safety. Make it a place where you answer to no one, where you forage on sweet strawberries by the hundreds and pull twisted tiny carrots with your kids.