I have a rather dirty secret

Issue: BCMJ, vol. 59, No. 8, October 2017, Page 393 Editorials

I love gardening. Hands in dirt, sometimes even stinky dirt.

I love gardening. Hands in dirt, sometimes even stinky dirt. There is something so incredibly right about being a respectful human in a yard surrounded by life from a completely different kingdom. It’s quiet, somehow soft, fresh, pungent, and dirty. There is no hiding your interaction with earth and plant—even with latex gloves inside my garden gloves the soil makes its way into the skinniest fingerprint grooves and eponychial hidey-holes. I have scrub brushes everywhere. 

I took to greens and to medicine at around the same time. I think I had one of those hanging spider plants and an African violet in my first med school apartment, and it went on from there. I definitely have killed or euthanized or neglected more plants in my life than I have nurtured to survival, and there was more than a little bit of Darwin informing my practice of which plants were going to make it with my once-a-week ministrations.

Having finally acquired the standard Vancouver 33-foot lot, and worked it for a decade and a half, I have gradually been able to sculpt out a little perennial-lined recharging zone. Hands in the dirt, hair in the breeze, bugs on the ankles: it is a place of quiet and refuge and sense. There is a direct relationship between my caring for it and what it becomes.

Most of what I have learned is from the gardening school of hard knocks. Because I am not a professional, I have the freedom to multitask and observe and think—even, perhaps, become a garden philosopher. Here are a few of my garden musings.

1.    To me, garden is mostly a verb. It’s not what is in your garden, it’s the act of making it. It has never made sense to me to plant a maintenance-free garden; the maintenance is the most meaningful and wonderful part. Very little in life is valued if you don’t see committing to its well-being and happiness as a priority. I don’t have a lot of land or even plants, but I hand water them when they are dry and I see them regularly on an individual basis. I am restored when feeling the responsibility of getting out and caring for them when they need me.

2.    I live on a sunny 33-foot lot in Vancouver. That means that my plants are generally putting their roots into dirt valued at more than $900 per square foot. I don’t have a single plant that deserves that kind of home. So when I lose a relatively precious one, or it stops growing well, I’m okay with that. So a plant dies, the ground is where the gold is. As long as you have the ground, and you keep it healthy, you can plant something new. Or not.

3.    Fighting nature is mostly futile. To cite an example, I no longer fight moss. Moss is green and soft and easy, and sometimes it even flowers (who knew?). If moss insists on growing, I have taken to actively making it feel more at home. We eventually got rid of most of our grass and planted naturalizing ground cover and defined moss collections over stones in some places. If something is lovely and wants to grow so badly, why not let it?

4.    I don’t cage or restrain plants. I fully plant under all the benches and tables and have no hard borders, except for keeping some invasive plants in pots. I try to trim things only to fill in the spaces most naturally. I like to think that you should feel the greenness envelop you when you are in the garden. You are the visitor in this green space, and the garden surrounds even your toes as you sit in it.

5.    I always consider the fourth dimension and its global effect. Plants grow and fill out. They may completely change their footprints and habits over time. And that in turn can change the whole garden. When its bedmates are still small and thin and far apart, an individual plant may thrive in the full sun it needs, but as time allows others to grow, it may one day be deeply ensconced in shade. It may start to behave in a way that suggests it is asking to be moved, or it may adapt in an unexpected direction or shape. You can’t always predict the permutations of time. Plants will suddenly grow where you haven’t planted them, and sometimes those unexpected seedlings end up being the most well-suited plants in that site.

There. I have now planted in you some of my herbaceous philosophy. Maybe some will take root. We are members of a caring profession. Though we officially care for people, maybe if we let our hands get dirty, a garden may teach us something else.

Cynthia Verchere, MD. I have a rather dirty secret. BCMJ, Vol. 59, No. 8, October, 2017, Page(s) 393 - Editorials.

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