How Gardening Can Feed the Soul

1 / 2
In “The Backyard Parables,” Margaret Roach uses her fundamental understanding of the natural world, philosophy, and life to explore the ways that gardening saved and instructed her, reminding her readers and herself to keep on digging.
2 / 2
Margaret Roach writes and gardens with an understanding of spirituality in nature.

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.

Thinking back, I wonder: What was I greedily praying for as I knelt that very first day? Was it for the thousands of hapless perennial seeds– the entire contents of each of many packets whose cunning cover photos had also won my heart during that same nursery shopping trip? I had planted them in too-close quarters, set them in a porch where they’d be guaranteed too little light, and overwatered for good measure.

As I poured instead of pinched them into place, like a kid happily suffocating cookies with sprinkles or a card for Mom with glitter, I was imagining riot of color, meadow-sized beds that never stopped blooming. I don’t think I knew enough to know what trouble the seeds, and I, were in.

No, I had probably come to these first two naïve, concurrent experiments of mad science seeking something with at least a little hope attached. Inside the house, just beyond that kitchen doorway and the ad hoc propagation porch, these were not sunny days but ones where a loved one struggled with illness, and would not get well. I flailed in various ways as I tried to find the answer to why, and sought any shred of optimism–the powerful potion of possibility or, better yet, belief. I got a garden (such as the wretched patch was), which in itself can feed the soul and even the body, but I also got occupational therapy, then eventually faith in the bargain, faith cultivated by a sequence of life lessons that all the digging and weeding and watering that followed brought to the surface.

Even now, thirty years in, new ones are turned up, and my collection of backyard parables–deceptively simple, instructive stories from a life spent digging ever deeper–grows. Preposterous as it seems, since we are not exactly quoting catechism but merely talking about lily-beetle larvae (revolting) or what deer won’t eat (nothing) or how to keep a fifteen-foot Viburnum in a spot that can only accommodate six (you do the math, then cut it down), the parables illuminate and help me puzzle out every corner of my existence, providing a lens sharper and brighter than the default one I came with.

“I believe in parables,” Barbara Kingsolver wrote in Small Wonder. “I navigate life using stories where I find them, and I hold tight to the ones that tell me new kinds of truth.”

Me, too; me, too.

Reprinted with permission from The Backyard Parables by Margaret Roach and published by Grand Central Publishing, 2013.

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.