How Gardening Can Feed the Soul

Discovering the spirituality in nature helped one young woman navigate life. She learned the secrets of the “backyard parables.”

| March 2013

In The Backyard Parables (Grand Central Publishing, 2013), author Margaret Roach uses her fundamental understanding of the natural world, philosophy, and life to explore the ways that gardening saved and instructed her. In short, she learned how the garden feeds the soul. Roach has harvested thirty years’ worth of backyard parables—deceptively simple, instructive stories from a life spent digging ever deeper—and has distilled them all in this memoir along with her best tips for garden making, discouraging all manner of animal and insect opponents, and at-home pickling. The following excerpt is an introduction highlighting her early gardening experiences and the road to finding spirituality in nature. 

Once upon a time, a faithless twenty-five-year-old got down on her knees and fashioned her first garden. It was a sorry thing, but also a matter of great pride, this perennial checkerboard imprinted on a sloping bit of ground outside her family’s kitchen door.

As if pricking through a preprinted canvas pattern of counted cross-stitch, she populated the tiny strip of inadequately cultivated soil with an equal number of two kinds of perennials. Half were low-growing, succulent rosettes called Sempervivum, or hens and chicks, houseleeks, or live-forever—since as she tucked these first roots in, she unwittingly entered a world where all the characters masquerade behind multiple nicknames, and where art and science collide so that there’s no straight answer to anything (which miraculously somehow makes everything perfectly clear). The others were Kniphofia (a.k.a., red-hot pokers, torch lilies, or tritomas) a tall thing with vaguely obscene wand-like flowers striped in hot sunset shades.

She did not leave proper space between, nor note the light conditions either plant required. But for that moment, there was peace on earth, and trust in her heart.

In the practice of blind devotion to living things called gardening, that is where I got started: assuming a posture of supplication and gridding out an alternating arrangement of plants that should never be combined, but what did I know? Just one thing, really: I knew that the postage-stamp-sized color photos on their plastic nursery labels had made lust rise up in me. Over all the other choices at the garden center where I had innocently wandered that morning, seeking a distraction from things at home, I wanted these beauties for myself.

This is how it begins: with the deadly sin of lust. Then you kneel a lot, and when you finally get up again, you’re not meek or humble quite yet but filled with the germ of another transgression — that of pride, which is said to be the worst of all and often the root of the others. Like the knees of your trousers, you will never quite recover.