Gardening is one of those things I really want to be good at, but I struggle.

I feel like I should be good at it, gardening is in my genes after all. Most stories I’ve heard about my paternal great grandmother involve how hard she worked to grow food, bake pies and raise chickens on her family farm.

Gardening’s also a skill running through the maternal side of my family. My grandma can still give tips for growing and canning nearly every vegetable. She’s one of those people who can look at a tree or flower and tell you what kind it is without searching through a book or Googling it. My mom can often do that too. It’s impressive.

danielle-strawberries

Garden beginnings

My suburban education didn’t exactly give me the same agricultural background as my ancestors, but that doesn’t mean I’m disinterested in growing my own food… somewhat. Mom planted a garden with my brother and me as kids, and I learned some basics like how to snap beans and plant marigolds to keep the critters away.

My childhood garden gave me enough background to take on planting a small little bed myself with a $50 kit from Westlake a few years after we bought our house. When our roommate Doc moved in, she brought a wealth of knowledge and new passion for gardening due to her farm-based upbringing.

She helped identify the sunniest area in our backyard and prepped it for a garden. Over the years, I’ve learned the ways of tilling, planting, tending and harvesting. (I’ve also realized my primary interest lies only in the planting and harvesting steps, which is why my gardening skills suffer.) But, I try.

new-raised-bed-by-mikey

Lessons from plants

I like the idea of gardening for several reasons. It feels good to grow your own food. As a cancer survivor, I like the idea of eating whole, healthy meals.

But, I also love the metaphors for life tucked inside of plants and seeds. Although I’m not exactly a “green thumb,” I’m a great observer. Here are some lessons my garden taught me this year.

filled-raised-bed

1. Soil matters

Mike built us a raised bed (woo hoo!) which meant we had two different areas to plant in this year. In the old bed, I didn’t do much to prepare the soil other than pull a few weeds and break up the dirt with a shovel.

On the contrary, the raised bed got new, fresh soil mixed with compost. The soil was moist and black–much different than the soil in our older bed.

danielle-cantelope

You can imagine what happened next. The plants in the new bed took off immediately. Large green leaves and spiky vines flowed freely within weeks. The plants in the existing bed struggled to grow all season long. There was barely any food that came from them, and what did grow quickly got eaten up by bugs.

The lesson probably seems obvious:  soil matters.

How does it apply to life? I realized where I plant myself also matters. The rooms I’m in, the people I talk to, what I read, what I eat, how I think and how much time I spend on social media… this all makes up the personal “soil” of my life. If I want to be healthy, I’ve got to fill up my life with life-giving things.

tomato-plant-ripening

2. Growth rates differ

So get this. I planted three tomato plants on the same day, in the same area of the garden, with the same amount of water. But guess what? Their growth rates differed. One took off, the others lagged behind. The starters had come from the same gardening center and I couldn’t figure it out. Eventually, they all became producers, but at different paces and in different ways.

I imagine teachers and parents know where this one is going:  I realized no two plants, and no two people, are exactly alike. We grow at different rates, and that’s OK.

cabbage-bugs

3.Hungriest gets the food

The bugs in my backyard must have been STARVING.

Not long after the first leaves on the cabbage and broccoli plants appeared, they were covered in HOLES. We’re talking Hungry Caterpillar-sized holes. The plants were so eaten up, we couldn’t salvage any food from them for ourselves. Although disappointing, it did teach me a good lesson.

Hunger drives how we think and act.

If we’re craving success, power or stability, we will likely step on, or step over, others. If we’re hungry for God, we’ll make faith and prayer a priority. If we’re hungry for connection with others, we’ll show up to things. If we’re hungry for security, we will design our lives in such a way there are few unknowns and loopholes. Hunger is essential to our survival. The bugs were hungrier than we were, and they got all of the food. It made me reflect on what I’m hungry for, and what I’m eating up.

bugs-broccoli-leaves

4. Growth is messy

Nothing about my garden was Instagram-worthy, it looked like a hot mess half-way through summer. The plants refused to stay in their places. This isn’t from a lack of trying, however.

I planted a cantaloupe and watermelon across from one another and even put a wire around them to try and keep the respective vines within their cages. But the plants totally ignored me, and over time, they grew upwards and criss-crossed to one another’s sides, even growing way beyond the borders of the raised bed.

I hated how messy it looked, yet I couldn’t bring myself to cut back the vines or stop it. It was a nice sight to see (especially compared to the dinky bed beside it). The plants were actually taking off.

And I learned, or should I say remembered, that growth is messy but growth is healthy. Often, we cannot contain it. 

surprise-pumpkin-garden

5.Despite the weeds, food can grow

I told you that I struggle with tilling and weeding, right? Well, let’s just say summer got busy, energy got low, and once the bugs ate the food, my enthusiasm for the garden waned. I stopped visiting it each day, and I totally neglected the area… but the weeds didn’t. They overcame.

By the end of summer, I’d written off the garden and didn’t expect it to produce anything. But I bet you know where this is going… it surprised me. The sun kept shining and the rain kept coming. So, eventually the tomatoes popped up and ripened. A cantaloupe did too, and it was one of the sweetest melons I’d ever tasted.

A few weeks ago, several weeks into fall, a little pumpkin appeared and blew me away since I hadn’t planted any pumpkin seeds. Even the compost mixed with soil was producing surprising little joys.

danielle-pumpkin

Seeing the unexpected plants and reaping a small harvest reminded me of the most powerful lesson of all this year:  there’s always hope.

Even when things have been neglected and abandoned, even when it seems as like the soil is bad and nothing will grow, I cannot give up, and I cannot give in. If the garden can keep on going, so can I.

Danielle blogs about cancer survivorship, communications and faith. Subscribe to the weekly Monday Morning Survival Guide!