Tuesday, April 02, 2019

The point isn't to get the stuff. The point is to do the work.

People often say, "Oh, I'd love a garden, but the work!"

The thing is, this is the wrong way to think about it. The work is the point. Americans have an odd expression: "yard work." And they use "yard work" as a way of punishing their children. This is not the English way of thinking of it, nor the Benedictine way. My grandparents regarded gardening as the supreme form of relaxation, and by this they meant relaxation of the mind. For the English, the garden, including the "work," was a place to escape to. The "work" - that my grandparents called "doing the garden" - is the purpose of it.

In fact, this is about a perfect summary of what we're all doing wrong in the world. We think the point is the goal. We think the purpose is to get the stuff with as little effort as possible. This is the "transactional" approach to life; the attempt to get as much as possible at the lowest possible cost. But that's not how anything real works. The point isn't the goal. This turns "the work" into a burden you try to avoid. The point is to do the work. It's the work itself that produces the reward.

For the Benedictine, manual labour is a great boon, a gift to steady the mind. While I was outside on the terrace all day yesterday, shoving pots around and building things, I found I'd created sufficient mental space to write, and finish the damn piece I have been working on for a week. I just can't write with the innernet buzzing away in my brain. I can't concentrate on anything, prayer, reading, thinking, while the world is shouting at me for my attention. A Benedictine abbess told me once, "Oh, doing intellectual work is the most tiring thing. You need a garden to help you rest."

Someone else asked me once, "How do I make the garden pay for itself in produce?"

I found this question incomprehensible. "You don't. That's not what a garden is for."

Someone posted a funny meme:

And it is funny, if that's why you're gardening. But I respond, as always, that I don't grow tomatoes because there aren't any in the shops. This is Italy, after all. We're not in the apocalypse yet. If I want carrots I can go to the shops and buy carrots. The garden is there for me. If it produces something I can eat, fine, but I need the garden itself a great deal more than I ever needed home grown carrots.

People fear work, and avoid it. This is the modernist mind. We are surrounded by "labour saving devices" that have started running our lives for us. So we have saved all this labour so we can... do what, exactly? Plato's idea that you need a class of people who do no work so they can pursue things like philosophy, art and science is a major theme in the utopian dreams of people like Gene Roddenberry - all the smarty-smart, "advanced" utopian aliens all do nothing all day but play Vulcan harps and write poetry. They probably eat bonbons. What a crashing bore! What a smug pack of bastards the Vulcans are! Don't you mostly just want to punch them and give them something useful to do? Did you notice something about Star Trek the Next Generation? These were people desperate for something real to do. What did they do in their off hours? They wrote poetry and played cards and mucked about in their simulators, playing pirates.

But like all these utopian ideas it doesn't work in practice because it fails to grasp that human nature is innate, and part of that nature is the need to work, to do things, particularly things with your hands and muscles. This is the great genius of the monastics; they fully grasp the subtleties of human nature in all its aspects, physical, mental, emotional and spiritual.

My Uncle Mike, who gave up the kind of job you do wearing a tie to turn to the more satisfying work you do wearing gloves, put it very simply: "People like us need to work." And the big secret is that everyone - all humans - are the same in this way. And Modernia proves it for us. What do most of us do when we've "saved" all the labour? We're not reading great books. We don't write deathless poetry. We don't all create symphonies. Now that we've created a world where you mostly don't need to do anything at all, what do most of us actually do? Mostly we surf the net, and say nasty things on Twitter. Well DONe, humanity!

As for the simple fear of the labour in a garden tiring you out (when you get to a certain age, this is no longer a mere theory) I answer that, as my friend Janet said: "Two buckets a day."

The trick is not to let the thought of the work intimidate you to the point where you don't do it for a long time. This makes it inevitable that you'll have way more work to do when you do work up the nerve, and that makes you exhausted and want to not do it again. If you go out and do two buckets a day, or divide the big jobs into lots of little jobs that you take in steps, it becomes a joy, and you see steady progress. This is they way my landlady Annamaria does it. It's just a normal part of her life, this daily visit of the garden and farm, the doing a little bit every day of every job as it comes up in the great cycle of the year.

And I find that once I'm actually out there doing things, it's incredibly hard to make myself stop.

For people who balk at the work, the answer is mostly just slow down. That you can't get to a mature garden in a single year. The answer is time. I wish it were possible to just buy a garden in a jar and pour it out and have it look like Bag End, but the main factor that can't be replaced with anything, not money,  not labour, not nothing, is time.

Watching the "making of" videos of LOTR, Peter Jackson, after having scouted the perfect location for Hobbiton, got the greens department working on it, and then let it sit and mature for nearly two years before starting filming.

This really is why I want a place of my own. More and more I find that the thought of moving and shifting everything every four years (the normal length of a lease in Italy) is just increasingly unbearable. There's barely been time in three seasons here to get anything even started. In fact, it's only two really, since I wasn't able to get started on my patch until the end of the first growing season, and now will have to leave next April. Gardening gives you a different understanding of time. To the urban non-gardener, time is portioned out in minutes and hours. To a gardener, as to a monk, time is portioned out in seasons. I've been here since April 2017. That might seem like a long time to an urban person. To a gardener that's a paltry three growing seasons.

The older and more hobbity I get, the more I find it is simply contrary to my deepest nature to be continuously on the move. Renting is akin to homelessness. But as a freelance writer, it's hard to imagine that I could ever have any hope of owning a home.

Now, with all that, it's clouded over a bit and is supposed to rain tomorrow, which means it's exactly the moment to go out and dig a few more buckets' worth of the carrot bed. And I found a little stray morning glory seedling starting in one of the pots, which means its time to seed them all over. No shortage of these. I've got two big jars from last year.


Don't you love before and after pics? This was the general mess of the terrace at the end of the first summer here, after a hasty and not very well organised retreat from Norcia. Fun and colourful in a chaotic way, but quite a mess.

Here it is this morning.

Strawberries and starter pots of sweet peas ready to go downstairs, pansies and herbs.

Sweet peas for the terrace, with their trellis, all ready to get going. The Sweets will only last until about the end of June, and then we just collect the seeds and replace the dying plants with marigolds and nasturtiums, which can be seeded now.

All the snap dragons are from seed last year. They lived quite uncaring through the winter ("winter") and started growing again in February. While they're amazingly robust growers, they're structurally incredibly fragile; just brushing by them carelessly will snap off the flower spikes. And I've learned that they don't like a small pot.

Neither do the morning glories. They did all right last year, producing lots of flowers, but they didn't get anything like as dense - and crucially, as shade-producing - as they did in the garden with similar light conditions. So no more small pots and little planters for them. I'll seed them in the back row of big pots and we'll see if there's a difference.

My last surviving rose from  Norcia. It nearly died, and didn't respond well to being pruned in the autumn of 2017. It barely made it through last summer, hardly producing any new growth and not even a bud. But this spring in early February it started putting out leaves, so I hope it's finally over the moving shock. The trellis is for the passion flower vine - also a survivor of the move - that needed a good deal more support last year.

Mad trellis-woman goes nuts! Quite a difference from the before pic.

Going to have to go cut some more canes before the grape vines start. The fort-building part of my brain has been working out how to build a proper grape pergola, and I think I've got it.

Need more sticks.



Maureen said...

I think this is quite beautiful! Enjoy!!

Anonymous said...


I will miss your blogs from What’s Up. Your numerous articles helped me to red-pill and I’m very grateful for that. Your blogging opened up a window of understanding for me concerning the machinations of the hierarchy. Thank you.

I also followed you at Orwell’s Picnic but as your posts on What’s Up increased they decreased at Picnic. I followed your gardening, the Earthquake and your subsequent move to your current location. I’m glad you’ll be posting all of your artistic and gardening efforts at Picnic once again. I love (and envy) your gardening pictures since you seem to have a much earlier spring in your location. I can’t seriously put anything that’s cold sensitive out until the end of May. Our last frost date is around May 31st in the States.

I wish you all the best and you’ll be in my prayers.


Hilary Jane Margaret White said...

Oddly enough the climate cycle in Italy much more closely matches the one I grew up with in Canada. All my life I've been used to spring planting in early March or even late Feb. The only real difference is that the summers are much hotter and drier. But Victoria has a climate that is sometimes described as Mediterranean, so this very much feels normal to me. Of course, Victoria rather rubs it in the noses of the rest of the country, having the annual Flower Count in March, while most of the rest of the country is under three feet of snow.

Fr. Ambrose said...


Your posts on gardening have inspired me to start a container garden in the backyard of the rectory. As an Oblate like you, I've been seeking my spiritual father's advise about how to incorporate more "manual labor" into my days, especially since my parishes are very small and I have a fair amount of free time. This seems to be a good way for me to get outside and do some work. The problem is, I'm relatively new to this. So here is my question: If I were going to have a relatively small container garden what are the 10 or so things I simply MUST grow? I'm interested mostly in things I can eat (cause I like to eat).

Unknown said...

Miss White, I'm glad you have come to a decision to focus on this blog. It's lovely and instructive, and seems to let us get to know you a bit.

Thanks for inspiring me this spring. I'm 73 now and full of aches and pains - BUT two (one?) buckets a day should help. I have a beautiful 4ft high statue of Our Lady in my front garden and I want to make this the focus of what I can do this year. Yellow day roses overhead, daffs at her feet first, then pots of begonias in bright raspberry and deep, deep yellow. Other than the odd bucket of petunias on the front steps that's all I can do.

Good luck with your 'yard' this year! and thank you for all your efforts over the past years.

Emmanuel said...

How about a Lemon tree (dwarf) or some other type of citrus tree?

Janet said...

I find I have to apply the two buckets approach with almost everything. Like laundry. And writing. And if I can only get it started, then I get in a groove. And to be fair, two buckets came from the husband, who literally used two buckets to move a GIANT mountain of dirt. It was impressive.

Hilary Jane Margaret White said...

Barbara: one bucket a day would certainly be sufficient for a small garden or a terrace/balcony container garden. There are lots of ways to do lovely plant-related things that don't wear you out.

Fr. Ambrose: the thing to do is decide what things you like best to eat, and then scour around the gardening-web to find out if it's suitable for a pot. Most things can be grown in containers, but different plants have different needs. Particularly be aware of how the plant's roots grow. If it is something with a long tap root, it won't do well unless it's got lots of depth. So, no sunflowers in the little rectangular planters, for instance. Some plants don't like too wet soil, and some can't stand to be dried out. Some prefer partial shade (acanthus) and others (basil, tomatoes, squash, melons) need as much blazing sun as you can give them. As with everything that's worth learning, the trick is to start small and simple, and do it the easiest way you can. So with a container garden on a terrace, start with things that are easy to grow, don't have enormous root systems that need to spread out or go five feet down. Some things - beans - do better in pots with different varieties. Bush beans do OK in pots, but pole or runner beans won't produce fruit so easily. Just pick five things you like, do a little research to see if you've got the right conditions for them, and go for it. I'd suggest starting with bought plants from the garden centre, rather than seeds, whcih can be tricky for a new gardener. And never let yourself be bothered too much if a plant dies. If your plant doesn't make it, you've learned something. You'll find that once you get started, the thing will grow and grow and it won't be long before your garden ambitions match your skill and knowledge.

Emmanuel: my landlady said her mum had a nice lemon tree in a pot, but they don't survive the winters in (ever so slightly) chilly Umbria. They really do need the full force of the Italian sun and long hot summers to do their thing.

Emmanuel said...

Hilary, the lemon (or sometimes a lime) tree is a comforting Australian suburban symbol. Even if someone does not have one they at least know someone else who does! We currently have a few citrus trees planted as an experiment where we live.

I am sorry to read they do not survive where you are. They are quite a delightful and useful tree.