Ten things my garden taught me in 2020

A lifelong gardener, Beth Py-Lieberman also tends a plot at an urban community park and garden near her Maryland home. She reflects on the perspective she has gained nurturing it during a tumultuous and often terrible year.

People enjoying Urban community "Ghandi Garden"
Courtesy Smithsonian Gardens

1. Less will be more

I think this year finally I reached capacity. With my arms always open wide to anything and everything, this year I learned my limitations. It came one morning when I got out of bed and the room took off around me in a spin with me at its vortex. I had been gardening the day before in the heat of the day and without water. I was dehydrated and didn’t know it. I sat on the edge of the bed terrified at what I had felt and overwhelmed by what it meant. It would prove metaphor for the year ahead in gardening.

2. The Gardener’s Privilege

The catastrophe of 2020 was for gardening no less catastrophic. The trilogy of global pandemic, unemployment and homelessness, combine with the added arrival of racial reckoning hit full force in the garden this year. A homeless man came into our garden to “borrow” a shovel. He took the tool and used it to dig up plants around town and transplanted them into the park where he had taken up residence. All of his household items were there, a grill, a cooler, chairs, bicycle, wardrobe containers and a fishing pole. He pilfered hanging baskets of geraniums and other flowers from around town and made a lovely arranged outdoor space for himself. We did get the shovel back; he had only borrowed it, after all.

A garden is a grand teacher. It teaches patience and careful watchfulness; it teaches industry and thrift; above all it teaches entire trust.

 Gertrude Jekyll

3. The soil recognizes no owners

The soil doesn’t care who plants the seed. The soil may even resent us for our negligence. Soil is complicated. It can’t be easily understood. So much is happening there at the micro level that it isn’t for the hobbyists to pick up and understand in just one season. Gardeners need to understand that soil is the lord and master of the garden; and communities, built on the soil, need to give it its kingship. The soil in our garden is the same soil that lies beneath the nearby park, the local businesses, the roads and sidewalks, the homeless shelter, and the police station.

4. We need to educate ourselves about parks, homelessness, gardens and privilege

A black, homeless man caught a fish and put it in his cooler and sat down on a park bench to sharpen his knife. He’d made a home for himself in the park. Baskets of flowers hung from the trees. Transplanted bushes and flowers grew up in the neglected patch of soil that he’d reclaimed. He had to eat. So he was going to cook a fish. Maria was gardening nearby. To her, a black man with a knife was scary. She called the police.

5. Gardens give us room to breathe

As the breath was choked from the body of George Floyd this summer and the world finally convened with a universal understanding of how inequality impacts police behavior, and a racial reckoning became paramount, the garden, too, thrummed with significance. We are an “urban” garden. The word urban has a way of being used to mask true meaning. In the garden, we learned over the course of the pandemic months, we could take our masks off and breath freely when only a few others were in the garden. Wearing a mask in the hot sun and bending over to work the soil was suffocating. We could only imagine the horror of what it would be like to slowly die with the breath of life being denied to us.

6. The expectation of violence that the garden defied

The stenciled words “Black Lives Matter” appeared on the street next to the garden. Our vibrant dahlias, roses, lavenders, squash blossoms and sunflowers paid homage to the words. The bees buzzed with their excitement. The swooping gold finches gave rise to their call to action. The sacred basil gave them a heady and vigorous scent. But in the town around the garden, the nearby businesses ominously boarded up their windows in a senseless fear, misinterpreting their meaning.

7. Homelessness masked and mysteriously tidied up

The soil in the garden did its work, mysteriously as it always does, growing the garlic to is readiness in early June and giving rise to the tomato blossoms that would soon fruit. Gardeners arrived wearing masks and gloves and when no was around took them off to take deep breaths of fresh flower-scented air. Mysteriously, the men and women, who were living in the park next door went away. So did all their stuff. The urban park went suddenly quiet. The park benches returned to just being places to sit with no one sitting on them. Maria stopped coming to garden and her plot went happily wild.

8. Food needs to find the hungry

Gardeners grew weary of the abundance of their soil’s work. Ripeness hung from vines. The sun beat down and turned green things into bright yellows, oranges and reds. But many of the gardeners had skipped town. About a dozen of us, all women and a few of their children, showed up one day and harvested. In only a couple of hours, we gathered up, just as women have for centuries, pounds and pounds of food, and took it to the shelter. It was really hot, and we all wore masks and it was hard to breathe.

9. Gardening during a global pandemic is both hard and rewarding

See all of the above.

10. Next year we will do even better

Maybe there will be a vaccine next year. But in this most consequential of years, as we struggle to manage all our hopes and fears, the soil doesn’t much care, but it will be there for us.

Beth Py-Lieberman wearing a flower headdress

Beth Py-Lieberman is the Senior Museums Editor at Smithsonian magazine and keeps her journalistic eye on everyone here at the Smithsonian for the potential stories that they might share with the magazine’s online readers.

Gardens as a place of resilience

December 11, 2020
10:00 a.m. – 11:00 a.m. EST

Join Smithsonian Gardens for a free webinar exploring personal relationships with plants and celebrating garden communities during challenging times.  

This is a free webinar, but pre-registration is required to receive the Zoom link and dial-in number.

COVID-19 has dramatically altered the United States, impacting almost every aspect of everyday life including our personal, cultural and ecological connection to gardens and green spaces. Panelists will share their thoughts on the pandemic’s impact on their communities and discuss how they have or haven’t benefited from spaces that traditionally provide solace, feelings of self-sufficiency, and improvements in physical and mental well-being. Join Abra Lee (horticulturist, writer, Longwood Fellow) and Katrina Lashley (program coordinator of Urban Waterways at Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum) in a discussion moderated by Cindy Brown (Manager, Collections & Education, Smithsonian Gardens). Panelists will share stories from their past and their current professional lives to better understand how and why garden communities are formed.

Posted: 10 December 2020
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