Growing Wild: Letting go and digging into the garden

  • Jen Smith at Amherst College, Tuesday, Dec. 9, 2019. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • A volunteer works in Grow Food Northampton’s Giving Garden at the Florence Organic Community Garden on Tuesday, May 9, 2017. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

For the Gazette
Published: 3/26/2020 6:34:21 AM

It is amazing to think about now, but last Monday was a completely normal workday for me in the greenhouses at Amherst College, where I work. I started the day as I always do, watering all of the plants in both of our greenhouse bays and taking a little extra care after the weekend to look over the plants for any issues or changes in the plants as I moved over them with slow and steady watering passes with the hose. I can’t remember exactly, but I likely caught a few rogue slugs in the process, which, plug your ears if you’re squeamish, I dropped onto the floor and squished with the sole of my shoe.

That same night last week, after many rounds of bedtime would-you-rather (“Would you rather wake up next to a snake or a porcupine?”), I put my son to bed and then saw the news that Amherst was sending our students home in advance of spring break, in an abundance of caution. Of course what has followed now makes that decision seem both incredibly prudent and also inevitable, but for me at the time it was a complete surprise, despite talking and making many contingency plans in the preceding weeks.

One of the greatest reliefs of this past week was finding out that I will still be allowed to go in and water our plants. I had been worried about the plants, I realized, but also about myself. Working with greenhouse plants does not lend itself to working remotely, and it was not until nearly every other part of my weekly routine was shifted that I realized how connected I am to my daily practice of caring for these plants.

Now that I am only going in to the greenhouse to water, I am bumping up against another familiar challenge in my work with plants: the surrender to imperfection. I only have a very limited amount of time that I am allowed to spend in the greenhouses now, and even after only a week I can feel the wildness of the plants creeping back up around me.  

I often suspect that I have been drawn to farming, gardening and growing plants for this very reason — it requires me to constantly confront the creative tension between my innate (and often unproductive) tendency towards perfectionism and the inherent imperfection of working with living systems.

There are moments in the greenhouse or garden where I feel particularly satisfied or in control. Two weeks ago, in the greenhouse, I had a day or two where things were exactly as I wanted them: floors cleaned, plants pruned and staked, perennial potted plants cleaned of weeds and moss. But it was just one singular snapshot in time, now just a memory. Even two weeks later, the tomatoes have grown tall and wild and are shedding old leaves all over the greenhouse bench, the floor again is littered with leaves and the compost pails that were clean and empty are now brimming with prunings needing to be driven out to the compost.

It is the same in the garden for me, always. While my mind craves order and control, the garden is constantly reminding me that I am only half of the relationship; it is pushing and pulling me as much as I am wrangling it into submission. As much as I struggle with this reality, I also am grateful for the constant practice and reminder that in the garden, as in life, I am not in charge.

This week I poured myself into garden planning and prep. I am a bit behind, but in the spirit of letting go and digging into where I am rather than where I want to be, I visited my new community garden plot and finalized all of my plans for planting; I also started some seeds. It felt amazing in this time of such uncertainty to do something so concrete, to begin a relationship with a place and a garden when, as we practice social distancing, so many of my other relationships are now happening through a screen.

Seeds are still available easily though online order, and many garden centers (especially our wonderful local ones) are open; some are even providing phone ordering and curbside pickup. I know there are far bigger worries for many of us right now, but I invite you to join me in being outside in some way in this coming week, whether by taking a walk through your neighborhood, visiting one of the wild in-between places in our small city, hiking or biking or by digging in to the garden.  

It is a great time to finish any cleanup from last year, to prune back perennials that need shaping; in many places, the ground is even warm and thawed enough to begin working. Not much is quite ready to go out just yet, though peas or sweet peas could go in soon, but planting season is just around the corner for many of us. Gardening and spending time outside can be a balm, and I would love to hear your stories of how you are finding comfort or grounding in the garden or outside right now. I can be reached at  


Most spring garden events have been canceled or postponed for the time being, but the Native Plant Trust is offering many of their spring workshops now as live webinars. You can find out more at

Even while most of us are staying inside, local farms still have produce to sell and many are gearing up for the season ahead. Two groups of farmers are offering local food for delivery right now, and the CISA website is a great source for more information on farm stands and other local food purveyors open now. They need our support now more than ever!

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