Garden as metaphor for life

It’s the same routine every Tuesday and Wednesday. I’m working from home with the dog, Mia, as close as physically possible next to me on the couch. It isn’t uncommon for her to be partially leaning on my laptop. When she does, I just avoid using the letters p, l and m. At exactly 2:50 P.M, she stirs, sensing the arrival of the school bus. Once the sound of the brakes on the bus echo in the house, she darts to the front window, paws up on the windowsill and screeches uncontrollably. Her buddy is home from school and she can’t wait to greet him with kisses and scratches all over his legs and arms. We don’t have her trained at all.

On this particular Wednesday, I have no meetings so I accompany Mia to the windowsill. It’s a rare chance for me to watch my 14 year-old son in action. I watch as he walks down our street, checks the mailbox and eventually saunters on to the front sidewalk. He seems to walk now with a more refined gait. It’s as if he has made a conscious decision to walk more maturely. To me, this new walk started today. In truth, he’s been doing it for a time now and I’ve just missed the transition.

As he opens the front door and greets his furry friend, I consume his presence. Dude jumped to a new level in maturity not just with his new walk, but in all aspects of his being. He sounds like James Earl Jones as he greets me. He’s at least 3 inches taller than when I last took him in. He has a new sly smile that says “I’m aware of the world more now dad.” I love it and hate it at the same time.

When did this all change?

How and why did I miss it?

As I stepped out into the garden last night, ready to take pictures for a future blog post, I felt a twinge of sadness. Not like “waaaaaaah” sad, but more like “aw man, where did the time go?” sad. Just yesterday the Viburnum carlesii shrub was blooming and it was exciting, with the scent dancing in and out of the front windows of our home. Now they are done.

Did I enjoy them enough?

Am I too quick to embrace the next plant in line that’s ready to bloom?

First my son, now my Viburnum; why can’t I slow it all down?

I thought the garden was supposed to be a place of escape from life, not a mirror of it.

But it is, and there’s no denying it.

In fact, I’ve discovered in my middle age that I’m consumed with finding the meaning in everything I do, see, hear, eat, touch, etc. My garden is no longer of collection of plants that look pretty together, but a god damn metaphor for life. And while I fought it at first, and yearned for the simpler days of my first garden, I wouldn’t have it any other way. I love the parallels and while at times painful, I cherish the life lessons I’m experiencing each time the shovel meets the earth or my dirty fingers pull a weed out of the soil or even when I’m simply evaluating potential changes in the garden.

Here are just a few of the parallels between garden and life:

The effort to be present

Each flower is fleeting. That is what makes them so special.

While there is always work to be done in the garden, there’s nothing more important than taking the time to enjoy it without judgment. Smell that flower, touch that flower, remind yourself that you planted that perennial five years ago and watched it struggle to get established. Now it’s time to experience the payoff.

There are many days when I can’t get out of my head. When that occurs, it is impossible to be present. Sure, life is busy and hectic and there is a strict timeline to be followed to ensure everyone is where they need to be on time, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be in the moment while it is all unfolding. Or we can’t take a few minutes to smell the flowers. That is why I have started meditating and so far, so good. The mindfulness practice should help in “life” and in the garden.

Feeling overwhelmed

Every gardener can relate to this one. If you can’t, then kudos to you, you are a unique species. I feel this each and every time I set foot outside, 365 days a year. If I allow it to take over, I become paralyzed with indecision.

My best way to deal is to chunk it all out. Today I will ignore everything except the front garden bed. If I can stay focused on this limited task at hand, I will successfully fend off feeling overwhelmed.

Every individual on earth can relate to this when navigating every day life. Again, if you don’t, you’re awesome … and also a liar. Feeling overwhelmed is a prerequisite for life. Be it managing a family, health, the job, etc., it is exhausting and stressful and how often do we want to throw in the towel? When it all piles on, we can’t comprehend the end of the tunnel. Similar to garden management, often the only way to survive is to manage through a to-do list; a mental one or one that is written on the stationary from the hotel you last stayed at and last felt relaxed.

Compartmentalizing is a necessity.

Planning is great, until it isn’t

More than a decade ago, I went through what I’ll call an “Arborvitae phase”. It appeared to be the best evergreen for my garden and my garden conditions, so I went all in. I purchased a ton of them in all different sizes and colors and planted them as the backbone of my newly developing garden.

Well, this happened.

And this happened.

And this happened.

The plan failed miserably and it took me years to establish a new backbone for the garden.

While I don’t suggest ever doing this, my wife and I put on an addition to our home at the same time she was pregnant with our son. As the pregnancy approached 8 months, we were clearly not going to have everything ready in time, including his room. For that last month, I built a daily to-do list with the hope of still having all of the work completed before his arrival. Looking back, the list was comical but necessary for our own survival.

Here is what we had planned for the day he was actually born (as dug up from an email from me to my wife 14 years ago):

July 12th

John off

Jerry – Light fixtures,fan,smoke detectors and thermostat

Final Plumbing inspection

Final Electrical/Fire inspection

Fill in front beds

Move couch and love seat – Dad

Buy closet fixtures

Buy door stops

Buy shelves for upstairs bathroom

Buy temporary blinds

Finish railing

Buy umbrella stand and cover

Yes, this was for one day. Don’t laugh.

Spoiler: he was born almost a month early and we happily dumped our to-do list in favor of staring at him in awe and enjoying those early days. He may not have had a room ready for two months, but we didn’t care; he was healthy and thriving and that is all we cared about as first-time parents.

Pivoting is a must

This ties into the last one. Once the Arborvitae plan fell apart, I knew I had to keep moving if I wanted my garden to even look the least bit presentable. I diversified my evergreen portfolio and really researched what would work with my conditions. While it took some time to pull it all together, I didn’t look back and didn’t feel sorry for myself. A lesson learned, great; now we push on and see if plan B will be successful.

A parent is ill and needs to move in with us: let’s clear the playroom and find a bed for cheap on eBay.

The school bus will now be arriving at 6:40 A.M: we need to add a back-up alarm to our son’s alarm, knowing he will sleep through anything. We need to buy breakfast he can ingest in 3 minutes. We need to enforce that his devices be off by 10:00 P.M.

We some how end up rescuing a dog without any prior planning: a new morning routine will be born, sleep deprivation will be a given, the kids better prepare themselves for chores and a severe dent in their routine. It will all be worth it.

Embrace or reject chaos

This is a very personal one. I could dedicate an entire post just to this one. I battle this daily in my garden, pulling from both extremes. I love gardens that are wild and out of control and fun. They best resemble how the plants would look in their natural state; the key word being natural.

That photo above isn’t from my garden, it’s from the Garden at Federal Twist. Still to this day, my favorite garden I’ve ever visited.

But my first instinct is control. I want things to be orderly and neat and weed free. I start to shake a bit when I lose control. The compromise between orderly and chaotic ends up looking my current garden: controlled chaos. If the design of my garden starts to lean more one way, I compromise and make changes to counter that leaning. It sounds stressful and overthought and you would be right. It makes me f’n nuts yet I love it as it pushes my garden to bigger heights. Here is my best attempt to attain the perfect balance.

Don’t mention this one to my wife. I’m a brutal pain in the ass. I stack everything. I close all drawers, often before they are done being used. I throw things away for my own personal relief. Before the kids finish eating dinner, I’ve put their dishes in the dishwasher. The dogs toys are put away seconds after she has pulled them out.

I’m not proud of this but I continue to do it. I know that it is potentially impacting the kids (and the dog) in a negative way. My over-the-top organization takes away from my daughter’s creativity. It’s too much and I’m aware I need to change.

When that will happen all depends on the ultimate cost of therapy.

Time management

There’s never enough time to garden.

There’s never enough time for my wife.

There’s never enough time for my children.

There’s never enough time for my dog.

There’s never enough time for me.

Patience and belief

Gardening is all about patience. We know that it takes plants time to get established and thrive with the challenge being how we provide them that time to develop while making the garden look all sorts of pretty.

Plants are expensive, especially when purchased in a large size. The majority of us can’t afford to buy large specimens so we buy them small and allow them time to get bigger and better. Again, that takes time and mega amounts of patience.

As smart gardeners (wink, wink) we know that plants need space to account for their ultimate size. That required space looks painfully bare initially and tests our patience yet again.

With all of that in mind, it took me years to photograph my garden until it was somewhat established.

How many times do we have to tell them to hang up their wet towels? How many times do we have to ask them if they packed everything? How many times do we have to remind them that if they eat poorly, they will feel awful soon after?

The answers are infinity, infinity and infinity.

But deep down, we know it will eventually sink in. They will eventually make the connection. Parenting requires unlimited amounts of patience but more importantly, the firm belief that discipline, advice and tough love will pay off in the end. All of the grunting and groaning along the way will ultimately lead to “you were right dad”.

I hope.


This is the most underrated enjoyment I get out of my garden. I love aging along with my plants. That aging runs from year to year as the plants get larger and provide more flowers or better fall color to aging within only a year’s time.

I love witnessing the slow decline of a plant from fully thriving, to “I’m kind of tired” to “I’m like way tired” to “it’s time for me to call it a year”.

Each phase evokes an emotion, an emotion that is seasonally relevant. Once a gardener understands this, it takes gardening from hobby to passion.

I can’t get out of bed without a groan. I find myself sighing not because I’m stressed or angry, but because I’m simply breathing. I mix up the dog and my daughter’s name often. I still say “I need to tape that TV show”.

But guess what? 44 year-old John is kind of awesome and a hell of a lot better than 24 or even 34 year-old John.

Even if he can’t recall a single name on the first attempt.


2 thoughts on “Garden as metaphor for life

  1. Bill Hodgeman

    This was wonderful, John! Very poignant and true to life. I laughed out loud during the chaos section – I’m the same way, constantly organizing and putting things away. Gardening is a wonderful outlet for our neurosis–and hopefully one that absorbs enough of it to significantly spare our families. Keep up the good writing!

    1. jmarkowski Post author

      Thanks so much Bill! You nailed it with the “sparing of our families”, I hope I am doing just that. Have a great weekend.

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