The Real-Life Poetry of Gardening
Tess Taylor on the Ancient Genre of Garden Poems and the Connective Power of Working with Plants
During the worst months of the covid-19 pandemic, when I’d suffered several losses and felt raw and isolated, I spent a great deal of time in our garden. At our bungalow, where the light in the front is best, this meant spending hours in our postage-stamp-size yard. I renewed beds, fertilized fruit trees, and reclaimed the sunny, unused concrete driveway for planters of favas, pole beans, and tomatillos. The labor steadied me, and had an additional benefit: As I worked, I often fell into conversation with passersby. I was grateful to be growing both kale and community—in a difficult time, I tended the garden and the garden also tended back.
It isn’t the first time a garden has renewed me. As a teenager who struggled with disordered eating, seasons spent planting, sowing, and harvesting helped me understand how both the earth and I deserve and need wise and gentle care. After that, I found a way to garden pretty much everywhere I went: I led a teen garden program at a youth center in Berkeley, built a community garden in a formerly vacant lot in Brooklyn, and worked on a small farm in the Berkshires. Each season rewarded me with birdsong, soilcraft, and friendship. I saw how gardens help us nourish both the soil and one another.
Gardeners, are, by their nature, people who believe in regeneration. They understand that the broken world we inherit can also be amended, with compost, worms, and steady tending. They have seen that the tended earth, in turn, offers up radical abundance—not only of food, but of insects, birds, rhizomes, and soil.
The garden surprises us in unexpected ways. Oregano winters over. Wild miner’s lettuce springs back. A volunteer pumpkin luxuriates near the compost bin. Suddenly met with abundance, we beg people to come help harvest our plums. We befriend a plot of earth, and it befriends us in return. By some powerful force, this friendship brings us into a fuller, more just communion with the human and nonhuman at once.
Of course, any garden plot is small compared to the brokenness of a wider world that can seem beyond mending. We live in a divided society. We live inside climate change, ecosystem loss, mass extinction, and racial violence, in a global community gripped by famine, hunger, and war. The heaviest days are excruciating.
Yet sometimes, in the face of huge pain, the things of the earth—hummingbird and mockingbird, snail and earthworm—can help reroute any of us toward awe and fascination. They can reconnect us—if just for a moment—with the life-energy we need to go on. Gardens also remind us that repair need not be so far off: in daily ways, we can each build our lives toward greater diversity and abundance. Nobody needs to be hungry. When we work the right way, we can all be fed.We befriend a plot of earth, and it befriends us in return.
My life outside being a gardener is being a poet. When I was asked to craft an anthology of new gardening poems, my heart leapt in delight. Poems and gardens share congruence: Gardens distill nature, helping us see how to live inside what we must wisely steward. Poems distill language, creating sculptural spaces that illuminate the world around us, allowing us to savor the language through which any one thing can be known. Poems and gardens
sculpt what the poet John Keats called “slow time”—building up sites from which we may apprehend and savor our wider life. Poems and gardens also remind us, in the words of poet Gwendolyn Brooks, that
we are each other’s
we are each other’s
we are each other’s
magnitude and bond.
In gardens and poems we find figures for grief and surprise, for loss and regeneration. Gardens and poems each help us dwell and abide.
The garden poem is as ancient as literature itself. After all, acts of hand, song, labor, and voice are deeply welded. Yet as I weeded through a great stack of gardening anthologies, I realized that many felt quite historic. Others were academic, tracing the history of garden literature from the important insight that the English word paradise comes from a Persian word for “walled garden.”
I came to this project with a new question in mind: What does it mean to garden in the early twenty-first century, in a deracinated, accelerating time, when the natural world is collapsing, and where, despite enormous technological advances, we have not yet managed to cultivate widespread abundance, nourishment, or peace?
My anthology, Leaning Toward Light gathers poems which address these questions. It celebrates current acts of digging and feeding, while acknowledging this moment’s particular brokenness. Like a year, it moves through planting and toward harvest. Like a garden, it offers space for grief and reverie. I am American, and, with some exceptions, these poets are, too. From this moment and vantage, they sing about tending and attentiveness, reminding us of our connections to food, pleasure, soil, and one another.
Some poets, like Mariana Goycoechea, find strength in watering just one houseplant. Others, like Danusha Laméris, grieve the loss of a child. Others, like Keetje Kuipers and Ellen Bass, celebrate the sensual shape of a garden. In aggregate, this collection reminds us that poems and gardens reward the efforts of attention: The tending we do inside them repays us.
In a difficult time, these poems also garden in public. Like my front-yard artichokes, they help us strike up conversation, reminding us as Ashley M. Jones does, that “it is a conversational labor, gardening.” Sometimes the conversation is with other humans, and sometimes it is with soil or animals or bees or our very time on Earth itself. We talk, as Brenda Hillman does, with plants. And these conversations—across species—sustain us. Like the hyphae that hold a healthy soil together, poems tendril, acting as connectors.
I have noticed, over these pandemic/post-pandemic years that I am not the only one putting stakes down in the front yard. Up and down the streets around the Bay Area, gardens sprung up in front and side yards, in planters and on lawns. Hungry for connection and reflection, we’ve reinvested in community gardens. Even now I am gathering donations for a community orchard I’d like to help steward.
And these efforts suggest new community as well. Earlier this season, a neighbor stopped by with fog-resistant tomato starts. Even now I am watching Ari, my neighbor across the street, hitch up a stake for the fig tree she is planting in a formerly dusty lot. Her front and side yards are currently full of herbs; blackberries; a pea trellis made of an old laundry rack. Her yard, where people now often come to chat and swap plants, is a generous reminder that under the skin of the barren, there is always the possibility of greater abundance.
I honor the abundance in poems, too—the way they dig beneath ordinary life and sprout to remind us of life’s power and shimmer. They also remind us that we build the good ecosystem together; that in it, we are each nourished and fed. I keep thinking of the words of Cornel West: “Justice is what love looks like in public.” Gardens are what hope looks like in public. Poems are also a form of public hope.
Leaning Toward Light: Poems for Gardens and the Hands that Tend Them edited by Tess Taylor is available via Storey.