Gardening as a Metaphor for Life

For those who were not aware, the only hobby I could strictly be said to have is gardening. And, I’ve been known to wax rhapsodic about it.

In my view, gardening is a metaphor for life. It’s less a hobby than a practice and an art.

You’re not in Control

In gardening, the first thing you learn is that you’re not in charge. Mother Nature is in charge. She decides on the weather, on what plants thrive or not, whether you get pests from slugs and cicadas to squirrels and deer. You can know everything there is to know about gardening, but you’ll never be able to make things work out how you want them to— and if they do, you can’t take credit for it.

In life, where so many things can be tweaked and perfected and individualized, it’s easy to forget that you don’t have control over the big stuff. You only have the illusion of control.

Seriously. The universe does not care what you want.

I want a pagoda, a flagstone path to the mailbox, and a water garden. I want whatever rodent that keeps filching my strawberries to stop it. I want the grass to stop growing so fast. I want the yard to not turn into a spongey mess every time it rains. I want the wood in the deck to stop warping in the humidity. I want the pool to stop attracting so many bugs to die in it. I want the weed trees I keep spraying to die already. I want lots of things. And yet things keep happening that are not what I want.

Things don’t happen to you. They just happen.

This is a great lesson in the impersonality of life. Things don’t happen to you. They just happen. YOU are the one that decides to take them personally. And although you don’t control much, you can at least control that. Same thing in business. The economy changes, the industry changes, Google makes you pay for your email, whatever– these things happen. It’s not a master plan to crush your spirit.

Gardening is the art and practice of the long view— and paying attention to details.

I have 1.7 acres of blank canvas. What do I want to create? Well, I want it all to be gladed woodland. Better get started.

But before I even begin, I discover that almost a third of the yard is a septic field– no trees allowed there. Another almost quarter can’t be treed because it will block the satellite signal. I also have to avoid the gas, water, and power lines.

Then you’ve got to look at the lay of the land, the soil, the ecosystems you hope to create. You have to start with the end in mind and work backwards to figure out your starting point. You can’t just plant things willy-nilly. If you don’t have a plan, you’ll wind up tearing out half of what you’ve done— and you might have to do a few things you plan to tear out just so the yard isn’t ugly and unusable as your work starts to develop.

You have to be prepared to work a long time without seeing much progress.

And, you have to be prepared to work a long time without seeing much progress. Such a long time that the finished version that you’re aiming for floats like a mirage over the existing structure, simultaneously taunting you and spurring you onward.

But you have to delight in the work, and the idea of the work. You’ll want to lounge with supreme delectation as you imagine planting the hill behind the house with lily of the valley and white daffodils so you’ll see them gleam in the shade of the towering oaks from the first sign of spring. You have to capitalize on the small, secret pleasures like watching a baby rabbit enthusiastically tear at the clover with its teeth, notice that your care at weeding in April means there’s virtually nothing to pull in July, and take satisfaction that every year brings more and better diversity to your yard; bats, bugs, birds and plants, how the soil gets healthier and the perennials more robust.

Without keeping both the long view and the immediate rewards in mind, its hard to do anything; get fitter, build a business, develop your craft. Gardening helps me practice that, and every day I look out my window and remember to be delighted even as I work at a huge, long project.

Gardening is my hobby, but it’s also my personal practice. It’s the “wax on, wax off” method for life, and for business.

What do your hobbies help you be mindful of?

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17 thoughts on “Gardening as a Metaphor for Life”

  1. Have I ever told you that you’re my Mr. Myagi? (Partially) true story.
    Say… what’s the deal with the headline of this post? Did Captain Literal (a.k.a. me) write that one for you? For a post about metaphors, I was expecting the headline to have some metaphor juice in it. But in reality, I’m just glad to see a new one on Change Catalyst. You’re back, baby!

    1. Hmm. Maybe you’re right. Nothing else really suggested itself, but I’ll think on it.

      You know, I’ve never seen Karate Kid? I’ll have to see if it’s on Netflix. 😉

  2. Long ago I wrote about life as a garden and I don’t think I touched on a single thing you mentioned here. Which is proof to me that this is an excellent and far-reaching metaphor.
    I used to knit with the end in mind. I just wanted to finish the project so I could make something else. I’d knit really fast, working as much as I could, until I had more scarves and shawls and cowls and such than I’ll ever use. And then I started quilting, and finishing a whole quilt takes even longer than knitting a shawl (if you hand-quilt it, which I do). And I realized that there is no point in making things like scarves and quilts if you don’t enjoy the process. They take too long, and if you’re always focused on the end, you’ll just end up with a bigger collection than you can use. I still get itchy to finish sometimes, when it feels like whatever I’m making is taking forever, but overall I’m a lot less impatient. If you can find something you enjoy about the process, you notice more of what you’re doing, I think.

    1. I’m the same way, Erin. That’s why I have so few hobbies! Gardening, at least, has no clear end. Even if I achieve my vision, it will be at least fifteen years from now, and the oaks I’ve planted will be only 20 feet high. Knowing that the end is so far off (and that I have so little control over it) is what allows me (or forces me, perhaps) to enjoy the work now, in the present.

    2. remadebyhand I’m the same way, Erin. I don’t like to make as much as I like to *have made*. Luckily, gardening has no end. Even if I achieve my vision, it will be at least 15 years from now, and the oaks I planted will be only 20 feet high! Knowing that the end is so far off (and that I have so little control over it) is what allows me, or forces me, perhaps, to enjoy the work in the now.

  3. Welcome back, Shanna. As a quick start, I have almost zero appreciation for this kind of thing. Gardening. Cooking. Building things. Anything that involve plans, specificity, patience, etc. are just not my cup of tea! Looking out the window at a garden and thinking about the years of effort past and future kind of sounds like Chinese water torture to me. Crazy how people vary, isn’t it? 
    I’m learning to be okay with this part of myself. It used to frustrate me hugely to read something like this and just feel terribly jealous and deficient. God bless Kolbe for helping me understand that there’s nothing wrong with me – I just have other strengths. You always sound so peaceful when you talk about your garden though, maybe I’ve still got just a touch of envy.

  4. Finally someone has convinced me that gardening is an art!  I thought that perhaps it might be, but now I am sure.  And, I am convinced, it is not my art form.  Anyone looking at our back patio might think, Poor old people who can’t even get around must live here.  I like to think it looks tropical.
    We do have to work so long and hard without seeing much progress.  Even “breakthroughs” are often, from a day-later perspective, not as huge as we once thought.  But the point you make, Shanna, is so important to remember:  it’s not happening to you – good or bad, it’s just happening.  How refreshing.  I can sally forth with fewer worries knowing that.  Thank you.

    1. tammyrenzi I’m glad I could convince you it’s an art! I know it isn’t for everybody, but it’s one of the few things that I can’t be competitive about :P.
      Sally forth unto the breach!

  5. joeyjoejoe Maybe you’re right about the title. Nothing better really suggests itself, though. 
    You know, I’ve never seen Karate Kid? I’ll have to see if it’s on netflix.

  6. This garden metaphor is going to stick in my head. I like the no control point you made and the time it takes for something to grow. That applies to SO many aspects of life whether it be personal growth throughout your life or growth in a specific field, mastering a skill. We really have no idea where something is going to take us. It could be amazing or a mess.

  7. Back when I was miserably slaving away in a cubicle, I would get irritated and upset by almost anything. This person was grumpy, This person sent me a passive aggressive email, bla, bla, bla. Then my cousin told me something that I remember still: “It’s nobody’s job to make your life miserable”.  That reminded me that people are just people, and it was up to me to decide how to respond to them. Kind of like you vs. mother nature in your garden.

    1. ethanwaldman I can totally relate to this.  When I was teaching and tired and not taking care of myself in any way, my attitude would suggest that I thought people were really out to get me.  Your comment made me realize how different my life is now.  
      Shanna Mann And so your words are the catalyst for changes in my brain!

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