There is a moment between the solstice and the New Year when nature seems to pause and let out a deep breath. In some years this pause is full of stormy rains and frosty nights. This year it has been mild and very dry, worrisome for those of us who have lived through California’s big drought cycles. Fall blooming plants like pineapple sage and lion’s tail are still standing with their last flowers, while early spring blooming plants like our rock roses and tea trees are well started. The year has turned seamlessly from one flowering season to the next.
I have been stocking up on fava bean seeds and garlic sets to begin two new classes, one for children and one for adults, as the city continues to experience a rising wave of people who want to grow food at home. And in this moment of quiet before the storm of a new spring and new students, I have a moment to wonder... why? What is it about the magic of gardening that finds me on my knees in freezing mud weeding oxalis as each new year starts?
Gardens like GFE nourish people who are hungry. I’m not talking about dinner, but about our soul hungers; for the wild, for rich living dirt, for crazy beauty. Our culture restricts us more and more to two dimensions (“sent from my iPad”), but a garden can expand us back into ourselves, the smell of crushed thyme, the bright cries of a flock of bushtits in the butterfly bush, the rhythm of lifting and turning living soil.
As city dwellers, it always comes as a surprise that there are springs and creeks below our pavement and old watersheds under our streets. The scrubby chaparral and occasional creek beds with oak and willow, along with shifting or grassy sand dunes, are a memory for historians. But islands of original Franciscan habitat still exist, in Glen Canyon and on Twin Peaks for example. Dedicated biologists and nature lovers are protecting and trying to expand these wild places. The native hillside at GFE is a welcoming expanse of cover, nectar, forage and nesting sites. When our native shrubs are blooming, they are full of a busy and varied population of pollinators, native and exotic, taking full advantage of our offering. In the early mornings, foraging wild birds quarrel in our beds and pathways. And the mulch has been turned up where a raccoon family dined. A red-tailed hawk perches in the Monterey cypress reviewing her opportunities at the top of the food chain. We nourish ourselves by being good watershed stewards.
In addition to the wildness beneath our feet and over our heads, a garden like GFE can reconnect us to the simple natural cycles that sustain our daily lives, and the earth that grows our food, swallows our debris, and transforms it into new fertility. When the school kids create a huge salad from our vegetable beds or make kale wraps; when we open the compost pile and fragrant steam rises in the cold air; when adult students see sleek purple potatoes roll out of a shovelful of crumbly soil, we have closed the loop of nature. We nourish ourselves by being good stewards of our food shed.
Almost every week, I see someone walk into the garden and let out a deep sigh. Sometimes they approach me with wide eyes and say “it’s so beautiful.” This is not because of us, with our uneven weeding, our excellent demonstration of every pest and disease seasonally, our overall careless love. This is because of the beauty and bounty of nature herself. She rewards us with double handfuls of outrageous beauty just for having the right plant in the right place. Our garden plants want to shine and bloom and attract. They evolved these flowers, and colors, and fragrances over millennia, trying to get our attention and love and hunger. And they have succeeded. There is something about the beauty of a mature garden bed, where texture and color get lost in the abundant, magical tangle of life’s explosion and the human heart opens to something nourishing... is it hope? Wonder? Reverence? Whatever you choose to call it, it is something we need more of. When we make a beautiful garden together, we have been good stewards of our soul shed.