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Humility of gardening

February 25, 2021


Humility is a flower
which does not grow in
everyone’s garden.

― Aristotle

Yes, you guessed it. In this essay, I will tie humility into gardening. You see, I believe every lesson in life can be learned from gardening. Gardening is the metaphor for life. I also believe that gardening can be a sacred and spiritual act. Over five decades, gardening has been a great teacher for me and a source of joy and inspiration.

Soon, it will be spring and I will be eager to play in the soil. I will be planting seeds, cuttings, corms, tubers, bulbs, etc. Most of these will grow and do really well. Yes, there will be blunders such as planting seeds too closely together, accidentally hoeing seedlings, setbacks due to frost in late May, insect or rodent infestation, or excessive heat. In spite of these, it seems every year enough plants in my gardens do well, and I am able to reap lots of produce for myself and to donate. So much so, that when other people visit my garden, they often comment on how much better mine looks compared to theirs.

I also plant a plot in a community garden. My active engagement in the community garden is to share my knowledge of gardening; encourage others to experience the joy of growing greens, peppers, eggplant, tomatillos, tomatoes, potatoes, and sweet potatoes for themselves — and to grow fresh vegetables to donate to a food shelf.

Neighbors and fellow community gardeners have often told me that my garden was better because the soil was better, and it has become a running family joke. Often, when someone is commenting how wonderful the garden looks these praises are often followed by, “You must have good soil.” or “The soil in my yard is not as good as yours.” If a family member is present, we just look at each other and smile.

Years ago, when I was younger, attributing the success of the garden to the soil did irritate me. To me, it discounted my achievement of producing beautiful flowers, vegetables, etc. It discredited the effort I had spent over the decades learning the nuances about various plants and figuring out how to make the conditions right for specific plants. As a result, instead of, “You have good soil.” I wanted to hear, “You are a good gardener.” Even the comment, “You are a good steward.” would have been fine.

Today, when someone tells me, “You have good soil.” I respond with a simple, “Thank you.” I have even come to appreciate that the person is correct. The soil has to be good to support vigorous growth. However, I quietly take some credit in knowing I amended and built the soil over the years. Yes, there is a lot of amending and building soil if one starts off with sand or clay. When I believe the person is interested in learning how to improve their soil, I would offer to help.

Now, before I get ahead of myself in believing I can build soil and make things grow, I am reminded of a conversation I had with my mother when I was a child. She was the one who introduced me to the miracle of a dormant seed taking in water which triggers the seed to express its greatness as a new plant emerging and going through the cycle of life. She stressed that the seeds and plants were wired to grow and express themselves. That is what they were created to do. All we as gardeners do is provide the right conditions to make the best growth possible. Looking back, it was a display of humility. Today, I fully appreciate that sentiment.

So, even when our gardens have the best crops, we need to remain humble and realize we don’t create life as gardeners. We only provide the best conditions possible for life to thrive and do its thing. We are stewards. We are caretakers of what has already been created.

In life, there are many opportunities where we want to claim credit for something. We may want to boast, show off, or have a superior attitude. I would suspect if we are humble, we would realize that it took a lot of things outside of our control to achieve the things we are most proud of. Our success would not have been possible if we weren’t standing on the shoulders of others. So, instead of being boastful or prideful, we need to pause and give praise to those who made our success possible.

Being humble or having humility is a character trait that comes from deep within. It is about substance, not show. It is about knowing you have achieved, not telling others you have achieved. It is about inner peace and inner strength.

It was Plato who noted that Greek philosopher Socrates once stated, “I know that I know nothing.” It seems that the more this great philosopher knew, the less he felt he knew. So, here is a paradox. Humility from a learning perspective could be to strive to know nothing. This may be an admirable goal. The more you are open to learning, the more you realize there is so much more to learn.

“If anyone tells you that a certain person speaks ill of you, do not make excuses about what is said of you but answer, ‘He was ignorant of my other faults, else he would not have mentioned these alone.’”
― Epictetus

“Every person that you meet knows something you don’t; learn from them.”
― H. Jackson Brown Jr.