How Gardening Completely Changed The Way I Think About ‘Home’

published Jun 26, 2019
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Growing up in suburbia, yard work was punishment. Crawling around on mulch and pulling out weeds that stung your fingers? I’d take almost anything else. I didn’t like being outside, and I especially didn’t like bugs or dirt.

When I left home at 17 with a backpack of belongings, I figured my gardening days were behind me. There were no yards to work in—only concrete! As I moved from rented rooms to punk houses and apartments, I never even thought about the green things.

It wasn’t until my mid-20s, when my partner and I were sharing a tiny apartment in East Harlem, did I think about plants. Thinking it was the adult thing to do, my partner brought home a small daisy in a terra cotta pot to put on our fire escape. Less than 24 hours later, a squirrel arrived and dragged it away, pot and all. That’s New York for you! We took it as a sign and didn’t try any more plants in that apartment.

A couple of years later, we sold our apartment and bought a house in outer Brooklyn. We picked the home so our dogs could have a small yard, but there was enough room to have a garden if we wanted one. We decided “why not!” and decided to see if we could grow anything, mostly for the novelty factor. We bought some tomato seeds and some pots and got to work.

Much to my surprise, digging in the dirt felt like fun and totally not a chore! In the early mornings, when I took the dogs out to play, I would crouch down to inspect the soil waiting for the plants to appear. Watering at dusk, I whispered to the baby plants, encouraging them to keep growing.

I was hooked. Watching the sprouts poke up through the dirt filled me with accomplishment. I had actually made something! I felt a rush of power and excitement. Suddenly, I was finding excuses and even waking up early to go outside to water and weed. I was creating something, but unlike crafts, it felt like I was doing a magic trick.

And though I really had no idea what I was doing and made a ton of mistakes (we planted the seeds entirely too early!), tomatoes grew. By the end of the summer, we had harvested over 100 pounds of heirloom varieties! We ended up making pasta sauce for the freezer and it lasted us the entire winter.

The next spring, we planted dozens of bulbs and seeds in our tiny front yard. By summer, they had turned into a sunflower and wildflower forest that made passersby stop and notice. The flowers kept the neighborhood wildlife (squirrels and possums) fed with their seeds and provided a place for bumblebees to nap. Yes, they really sleep in flowers! It was a surprise to me, too!

As the flowers and vegetables bloomed, I noticed something in me was growing as well. Everywhere you turn, there are ugly, scary stories—especially for marginalized people in this country. I believe it’s important to speak out against injustice and to work to make the world a better place. But I realized early on that, in order to do that, I needed to have a beautiful space of my own I could continually return to and recharge. Since running away from home as a teenager, I’ve always done my best to build a sanctuary for myself wherever I was living. I hung pictures on the walls, even when landlords said I couldn’t. I built new holiday traditions and rituals with friends and chosen families. I painted the walls bright colors. But it always felt like maybe that deep connection to a particular space—that sense of belonging—was missing. In gardening, I finally found this new layer of depth. I guess you could say I was putting down roots. I wasn’t merely rearranging or adding beauty to an oasis—I was creating one.

There is an inspiring, self-care ritual in the time and energy it takes to plant, water, and wait and wait and wait to see if the magic happens, if sprouts will push up through the dirt. Each time a tiny seed transforms into a rainbow of flowers, I feel renewed with hope not just for my garden, but for the world. It’s a reminder that there is a possibility of beauty everywhere. The best part? I don’t have to spend a lot of money on it—seed packets usually cost less than $2.

When we (along with our three dogs and three cats) moved cross country to Portland, Oregon, last year, we bought a new house with big yard—more than four times the size of our tiny patch in Brooklyn. It has large, established fruit trees, and slowly, we’re augmenting the builder’s blandscaping with our own bright flowers, a new sunflower forest, some tomatoes, and berry bushes.

Before buying our new house, I never would have thought I would enjoy mowing the lawn in the afternoon or watering flowers in the evening. Yet I do, and I’m filled with equal pride whenever a butterfly comes to brunch on the nectar of my flowers, or a neighbor comments on their beauty.

Yes, it’s challenging to get used to the new ecosystem and terrain, but I’m enjoying the ritual of it all. Last week, raccoons took whole branches of almost ripe tomatoes and blueberries, but that’s okay with me. Even though I won’t taste the labor of growing those plants, I know gardening means something more important to me: It’s the act of growing that I find the sweetest.  

What are you growing?

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