Digging Around in the Dirt: What Gardening Can Teach Writers
Catie Marron on Learning to Understand Soil
Gardens have mattered deeply in people’s lives ever since Eve ate the apple from the tree. Cicero’s words, written in his native Latin more than two thousand years ago, still resonate profoundly today. For centuries, gardens and books have fulfilled our human need to enrich both our minds and our souls. It’s elemental.
In early 2017, our family came upon a house in Connecticut by chance, less than an hour’s drive from our lifelong New York City home. We fell in love with the rolling land that unfurled around it in every direction and the secluded lake at the property’s edge. Don, my husband of thirty years, and I had often dreamed of having a home big enough for us and our two children, William and Serena, and future generations of our family. This house fit the bill. It was well designed and, with some needed renovations, paint, and our furniture, it came to look like us. Yet I couldn’t shake the sense that I didn’t belong there, that I was living in someone else’s house. I tried everything to feel comfortable. I even burned sage and applied the principles of feng shui—to no avail.
About a year later, still unsettled, a thought occurred to me: To feel rooted, I had to put down roots. Literally. I found myself channeling Cicero and thinking of gardens. Over the years, I’ve built a small library of gardening books and nurtured the idea of creating a garden: a space of my own where I could work in the dirt, be involved with nature, and produce the flowering plants of my imagination. To turn our house into a home, I’d root myself to the land, which is what drew me to the spot in the first place. Perhaps that’s because of what author Penelope Lively, whose book Life in the Garden is in my collection, thinks is our primeval need: the urge to be outside. It certainly seemed as good a time as any to attempt to become a gardener.
Obviously, to become a gardener, I needed to garden. I had a rough idea of what I wanted—something that fit naturally with my image of the New England countryside—but I didn’t know how or where to start. I decided to give myself eighteen months, thinking this would allow me enough time to design the garden and watch a full year’s plant cycle. Little did I know how much the world would change in that time, both globally and for me personally.
What began as a desire to feel rooted in a new home with my family became something else entirely.
In the beginning, I thought all I needed was gardening advice—basic information on how to lay out a garden and what plants to grow. As it happened, I needed and discovered so much more. I turned to my library of gardening books for help. Looking at them, I realized that my favorites were written by some of the world’s most brilliant fiction and nonfiction writers who also happened to be gardeners.
As a metaphor, gardening is, in Eudora Welty’s words, “akin to writing stories.” Both books and gardens give our imaginations a chance to roam and create our own private worlds. They let us escape time, entertain us, and offer pleasure and beauty. Certainly a garden is a glorious place to read. It is rich with life lessons—ample ground for any writer to explore.
I read (sometimes reread) book after book, hoping to uncover some well-hidden secret on what it means to be a gardener, and how to become one. In short order, I read that gardens give enduring happiness, offer hope, teach patience and tranquility, and provide sanctuary and beauty. Beverley Nichols writes that a garden is “a place for shaping a little world of your own according to your heart’s desire.” According to Anna Pavord, “gardening slows you down, masks worries, puts them in proportion. A garden teaches you to be observant and how to look at things. You become less inclined to leap to quick conclusions or to jump on the latest bandwagon. A garden hones your senses.” Monty Don thinks that “gardens heal.” He writes, “When you are sad, a garden comforts. When you are humiliated or defeated, a garden consoles. When you are lonely, it offers companionship that is true and lasting. When you are weary, your garden will soothe and refresh you.”
I soon discovered that there are as many different personalities of writers as there are gardeners but garden writers, in particular, share a common characteristic: They’re opinionated. Yet, just as easily, they trade helpful hints with one another as argue. Imagine if what these writers said about gardens was true, how much I’d benefit.
Over the course of the next several months, I wrote down memorable quotes and words of advice until I had enough wisdom to compile an anthology. I had endless questions: Where do gardeners get their inspiration? What is the meaning of gardens in their lives? How will I know when I’m a gardener? What exactly is the difference between straw and hay?
And then I read Jamaica Kincaid’s My Garden (Book): She writes, “I started to plant things—this is not the same thing as being a gardener—when, to celebrate my second Mother’s Day, my husband, on my daughter’s behalf, gave me some packets of seeds (I only remember delphiniums and marigolds), along with a rake, a hoe, and a digging fork, all bought from the Ames department store in Bennington, Vermont. I went outside, dug up the yard, and put the seeds in the ground. The skin of my right forefinger split, the muscles in the back of my calves and thighs were sore, and the digging fork broke; for all that, the seeds did not germinate. . . . Since then I have become a gardener.”
I felt exactly like that. The best I knew I could ever realistically achieve in eighteen months was to become a novice . . . and that, I decided, would be fine. Over the next year and a half, I made lots of beginner’s mistakes, but also experienced enough success to keep me going.
My book, Becoming a Gardener, is about my education from dreaming to doing. Before I ever planted my first seed, these writers, whom I now think of as my literary mentors, gave me direction and prodded me forward when I felt overwhelmed and lost. Even though many of these authors were or are experts, they all had to start somewhere.
I would eventually discover another circle of mentors—hands-on, real-life gardeners—who taught me the right way to sow and why it’s important to understand soil. By digging deeper into my reading and working in the garden, both with my mentors and by myself, I learned a new way of being rooted, as Michael Pollan writes, “in the endlessly engrossing ways that cultivating a garden attaches a body to the earth.”
When I began this project, a friend told me I was trying to cram a lifetime of study into months. She was right: A gardener’s education is never done. But I’ve realized I’m not taking a test to prove anything and, besides, there is no test. For as many different answers as there are to what a garden is for, there are also multitudes of reasons why we garden.
From the book: Becoming a Gardener: What Reading and Digging Taught Me About Living by Catie Marron. Copyright © 2022 by Catie Marron. Reprinted courtesy of Harper Design, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers