Is Time Nothing in a Garden, Or Everything?


My garden

My vegetable garden, 2007

By the time I moved eight years ago, I'd made a really nice vegetable garden at my first house, backed by a lovely bed of roses and foxgloves.  A few people said to me, "Aren't you sorry to leave your garden behind?"

And my feeling was, naaaaaa.  It was exciting getting to make a new one, or, as it turned out, two, since in an insanely exuberant mood, my husband and I bought both a city and a country house. 

Of course, I'm most interested in my vegetable garden, and vegetables are mostly annual crops that go from nothing to spectacular over the course of a few months.  So I may have less anxiety about the process of maturation than someone obsessed with boxwood hedges would, or God forbid, trees.

Still, I have left fruit trees behind, and that upsets me–planting apples and pears and never getting to taste a single one. I want to put down roots. But hey, life happens. Things don't work as planned. New gardens just get made. And I'm up for it, for as long as my energy holds out.

And I'm not afraid of starting over, because I've seen how quickly a patch of nothing can be transformed.


My vegetable garden, 2010

I'm not just talking about the superficial stuff, like the actual crops that can be quickly scraped off a formerly barren piece of land. I'm talking about the quality of the soil.  A few years of deep mulching can turn it from sodden clay that retains the shape of the shovel when you turn it over… to that fresh-smelling, easy digging, wormy loam that is the definition of fertility and possibility to any gardener.

Horticulture professor and Informed Gardener author Linda Chalker-Scott has seen this kind of transformation occur at an even faster pace, even in ground compacted into infertile near-cement by foot traffic. She writes…

My landscape restoration classes now routinely have wood chips spread on site to allow soil recovery to begin as they prepare the site and install new plants. One particular site, a small lot near a bus stop, consisted of weeds, bare soil, and a few existing trees and shrubs. When we tried to take a soil core, the corer bent! We had 8-10" of wood chips spread over the whole site as we began our work. A month later, we moved aside part of the mulch and dug out a shovelful of rich, loamy soil. Had I not seen it for myself, I'm not sure I would have believed these stunning results.

Of course, the reason soil can be transformed by mulch is that mulch feeds the unseen hoards, the mind-blowingly diverse creatures of the soil, who do their various jobs of decomposing, digging, tunnelling and shredding incredibly effectively.

In my relatively new vegetable garden, I feel that by mulching and planting a big variety of food crops, I have simply set the stage for an explosion of life.  Some of the creatures drawn to my garden are a problem–groundhogs, rabbits, and cabbage moths–but many of them act like unpaid assistants, including the many birds, toads, and spiders that hunt for insects from the heights of my pole bean arches to the leafy recesses of my lettuces.  There is nothing sweeter than weeding peacefully in my garden, with birds flitting and preening right overhead.

Given the slightest opportunity, nature works quickly to fill any vacuum.  That's the point of everything from the "Time Passes" section of Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse to the various books and articles of recent years speculating about life on earth without humans. In a few short years, most of human heavy-footedness can be undone. Wastelands can be made into gardens.  Look at Detroit–just 50 years ago, it was one of America's great industrial cities.  Then it became a lot of meaningless infrastructure.  Well, assisted by city-funded bulldozing and a few arsonists, the meaningless infrastructure is disappearing.  Today, you can startle pheasants in a community garden within eyeshot of downtown. 

Give the joint some mulch and life moves in FAST.  Redesign, redo, reap the rewards, and flash your bleached teeth in an ecstatic smile, just like on one of those ridiculous HGTV garden makeover shows.

Or so I've always thought, until this week when I've been reading biologist Edward O. Wilson's The Diversity of Life.  He discusses the mechanisms by which nature is constantly creating new species, but also points out that these new experiments are untested and not always successes. They don't always even add to the diversity of an ecosystem, because new species with a common ancestor may be so similar that they compete and push each other out. 

Here is what Wilson says about time:

The richest ecosystems build slowly, over millions of years….By chance alone only a few new species are poised to move into novel adaptive zones, to create something spectacular and stretch the limits of diversity. A panda or a sequoia represents a magnitude of evolution that comes along only rarely. It takes a stroke of luck and a long period of probing, experimentation, and failure. Such a creation is part of deep history, and the planet does not have the means nor we the time to see it repeated.

I somehow feel completely chastened.

I am clearly a flim-flam artist of a gardener who experiments with knobby blue Italian pumpkins just like nature experiments with the beak shapes of island birds, whose extreme specialization can make their species vulnerable to the slightest change in their environment.  I am not somebody who is doing something lasting, like engineering a sequoia.

Maybe I ought to start planting boxwoods?

Photo credit, second photo: Eric Etheridge.


  1. I’m not sure I understand your disappointment. The only time you get to utilize is your living life. Wood chip mulch specifically does miraculous things for the soil quickly, that you will get to utilize within your life time. You get to leave this mortal coil knowing that one small patch of ground was left better and more alive than how you found it. What happens next is not up to you.

    You do not get to create new species. That is not your job. The best you might do to extend the notion of your available time is to build a stone wall around your vegetable garden instead of such a short lived wooden fence.

  2. People asked if I would cry over leaving behind the plants in my garden when buyers fell out of the sky and offered to buy my house at full price – I said that it was the soil that I would miss the most. I had tended it lovingly and watched it become something rare and extra special. If I had the time and the back strength I would have hauled it all away one wheelbarrow load at a time.

  3. Your garden is beautiful!

    Hearing you speak wistfully about evolution and leaving fruit trees behind, and seeing all of that wide open lawn around your garden, I can’t help but think American chestnuts might be something you could get into, if you live on the East Coast. The American Chestnut Foundation is now making nuts available that may be resistant to the blight that nearly wiped them all out. You could harvest nuts and play an important evolutionary role by growing some.

  4. It’s all a matter of perspective, isn’t it? Introducing organic matter might only encourage a very small ecosystem… but it matters an awful lot to its inhabitants. Pulling back and looking at the grander scheme of nature, beyond the garden, is humbling, comforting, and joyful, to me.

  5. What a beautiful thoughtful post.

    I suppose it’s good to have perspective but it does tend to generate wistful sorts of feelings.

    The good part is that you get to improve more soil, to make a new place better. And maybe your gardening has either attracted a buyer of like mind or even better, stimulated a non-gardener to take a stab at it. Then you’ll have started something that’ll continue without you. And you can return to see how things are going. I’ve designed, well, a lot of gardens in the DC area and when I realize that I’m in the vicinity of one, I drive by, or stop, and look. Sometimes The gardeners have gone beyond the original concept to create a rich and diverse garden, sometimes nothings been done, and more often there’s some remnant of the original plan: a shrub border, a tree, a drift of whatever. It’s always interesting to see how plans have worked out.

    Anyway, new gardens are exciting. Have fun!

  6. give me a warty blue pumpkin any day, rather than a boxwood! Gardens are not about evolutionary epochs, they are transitory ecology’s that feed us with both calories and intellectual satisfaction and joy. If they are cultivated so they can also provide habitat to both macro and micro fauna, they are also helping sustain the fractured ecosystem we all live in. The Pacific Chorus Frogs and California Newts that have colonized my backyard pond need all the help they can get and luckily, Fred, my lazy rescued from the Animal Shelter turtle, can’t be bothered with chasing moving food. So the survival rate is delightfully high. Though being trapped in the old industrial neighborhood the Newt migration to the back yard means they have to cross the street from the weedy abandoned salvage yard where I assume most of them spend the summer, luckily they do it late at night and I have only seen one road kill in the last five years.

  7. I’ve left three gardens behind and it’s heart-rending every time. But now we’ve finally bought a house, so we hope to settle in and get to enjoy the fruits of our labors: Gravenstein apples, pineapple guavas, third-year strawberries. And that deep, loamy soil that comes with repeated applications of rabbit manure and coconut coir.

  8. Very thoughtful piece, Michele.

    I often think that I’d like to move from the ‘burbs to the city, be closer to my office & the kids’ school, not face a daily commute that sometimes stretches a 25-minute journey into a hour or more of brakelights & exhaust.

    What stops me ? Last time we moved I bemoaned leaving the mature Stella cherry, my terraced vegetable garden that captured the sun well into fall evenings, my precious Don Juan & Joseph’s Coat climbing roses. Now that I have replaced & even improved on those things at the ‘new’ house, how can I consider leaving them ? Perhaps if we could find one of those rare one-acre city residences, with a few mature trees already in place, I’d be tempted. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be worth it just to save time.

  9. Well at least you did not have your gardens or installations destroyed into a nothingness as it happened to your humble servant and shared with some in antigonumcajaneveningpost.

    This is the mother of all rants, wordy wise.

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