A good 30 years ago, author Robert Fulghum packaged his bits of wit and wisdom in a popular little book called “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.”
With all due respect, I wonder how he could compile a comprehensive list of life lessons from schooling largely experienced indoors — in stuffy classrooms smelling of paste, chalk and peanut butter sandwiches. Most of what I’ve needed to know I learned in the garden. Under the sun, out in the rain, hands in the soil, you are led inexorably to contemplate The Way Things Really Are.
Bear with me, and I will explain how a life in the garden can shed light on some of the truest aphorisms ever coined. For instance:
The early bird catches the worm. If you arrive at the garden center after the perennials and shrubs have already been picked over, or order your spring bulbs when the best varieties have sold out, you’ll recognize the truth of this axiom.
To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven. Gardeners know this in their bones. They would never plant spring-blooming bulbs in the spring, start tomato plants on the windowsill in December or expect lilacs to bloom in the fall. Plants mark the calendar in the natural order of things: First the daffodils, then the azaleas, then the lilies, then the mums. If you want to upset the calendar, get a greenhouse.
Pride goeth before a fall. If you doubt this, you have never chortled over ripening tomatoes without considering the hornworm, or reveled in the roses without thinking of the Japanese beetles. Generous souls who open their gardens to public tours know that prized blossoms can wilt, succumb to mildew or disappear down the gullet of deer and rabbits the very day before visitors are due. It is no real consolation to say “You should have seen the place last week!”
Take time to stop and smell the roses. Good advice for the ever-busy gardener with the yard-long agenda of chores. If not you, then who? If not now, then when? The perfect rose of today can be a sodden blob of petals after tomorrow’s heavy rain, so gather ye rosebuds while ye may.
Good things come in small packages. A seed is a miracle and a mystery of never-ending fascination. Packed in that tiny vessel are the complete instructions for a tree, a green bean, a zinnia or a snapdragon. How does it do it? How does it know? These are cosmic questions that keep one attractively humble.
Patience is a virtue. Without patience, there would be no gardens. Vastly underrated in today’s gimme-now world, patience is the price you pay for witnessing the slow unfolding of a bud, the skyward thrust of a tree, the maturing of a harvest and the evolution of that man-made landscape fantasy known as a “garden.” Lacking patience, you will be forever condemned to silk flowers and paving stones.
Do unto others as you would have others do unto you. This especially applies to next-door-neighbor disputes, including the trimming of hedges, the erecting of fences, the confinement of pets to their own property and the making of excessive noise. Be generous with your gardening knowledge, your extra plants and your sympathy when good things go bad.
The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. This can literally be true, but maybe your neighbor is spreading unneeded chemicals hither and thither without considering the consequences. Excessive phosphorous in fertilizers contributes to the pollution of our streams, pesticides kill the good bugs with the bad, and harsh chemicals of all kinds wind up in our drinking water — which many unthinking folks squander on dry summer lawns that will recover on their own come fall. Isn’t it better to be conservative with chemicals and learn to live with imperfection?
First, do no harm. This is the physician’s oath, but we are all tempted to doctor our plants even when we’re not sure what the problem is. Before you reach for weapons of mass destruction (scorched-earth herbicides, weed-whackers, flame-throwers), try the least destructive remedies first. Do some detective work and know the enemy, then proceed with caution lest you make matters worse.
Think globally, act locally. The horticultural marketplace offers plants from every corner of the globe: Amaryllis from South Africa; woody ornamentals from Korea, China and Japan; hellebores and lilacs from Europe; roses from South America. Many of these are worthy garden subjects, but it never hurts to respect the integrity of our regional landscapes. Plant native species to support local wildlife, and be extremely wary of invasive plant thugs.
Good help is hard to find. You probably already know this if you have tried to draft a disgruntled teen to turn the veggie patch or have attempted to drag the hubby away from his golf addiction or baseball game. Unknowledgeable help is hardly help at all — ask someone whose “gardener” sprayed the perennials with herbicide and left the weeds to flourish. Often, if you want something done right you do have to do it yourself.
A thing of beauty is a job forever. This one comes from Milton Berle, who must have understood the nature of a garden with its constant demands for water, food, weeding, pest patrol and mulch. Still, if all is right in your world, the gardening you do is a labor of love. A thing of beauty is a joy forever, too. And beauty not only has redeeming social value — it is a redeeming social value.