Lessons from a garden

Sometimes you think you have a really good idea, like planting vegetable gardens at your office. Full of enthusiasm, you put your family to work and spend an entire day tearing out sod, piecing together scrap lumber, and hauling in dirt. It is hard work but you feel proud.FullSizeRender

Then it is the next year, and you think it will be easier, but it’s not. This time it’s only you, your kid, and the dog. Last year’s dirt is rock hard and full of weeds. You dig, you hammer, you sweat. There is a truck full of new soil to unload and only a six year old to help.

But, he does. He rakes the rich, black dirt smooth while you shovel and haul one wheelbarrow after another. Shovel, huff, shove.

Finally, it is time to plant. That part – the long awaited planting – is finished so surprisingly quickly. By then the sun has set, and you’re covered in dirt, and the dog has ticks. But at last, the garden is planted. Learning to plant a garden

You can learn many lessons from a garden. One is that few things worth doing in life happen easily or quickly. Whether you’re training for a race, raising a child, or trying to restore the St. Croix River, it can take months, years, or even a lifetime of hard work and relentless forward motion. In the example of a race, there is at least an end point at which your work is done and the long-sought goal accomplished. Like most other things in life, however, the garden is never finished. The garden is an endless cycle of hoeing and planting, weeding and tending, preserving before the winter and then starting over in the spring. Planting seeds and harvesting tomatoes are the shortest, sweetest tasks in a never-ending – though worthwhile and satisfying – job.

Gardening also shows us how hard it is to transform the earth from one thing into another. In the still of the night while the fresh raked soil lies smooth and brown, the weeds have already begun to creep in and take over. Maple seed helicopters spiral to the ground, ready to reclaim the garden as a forest. As the summer progresses, the edging cracks and the hand-painted markers fade. To preserve the garden requires constant tending, tending, tending.2018-06-04 04.23.53

Even when we aim to turn the process in reverse – changing farm field back to prairie or restoring a degraded lake – nature seems to fight the transformation.  Natural resource managers will tell you that it is always easier to protect a lake, river, forest or prairie than to restore them to health once they are damaged. Converting an old field into prairie is like trying to plant a 10-acre garden. Though the work gets easier as the plants fill-in, it requires constant tending, tending, tending to survive those first few years.

Olson prairie burn spring 2012
A controlled fire helps to minimize weeds in a restored prairie. Habitat restoration is hard but rewarding work.

The larger the garden, the harder the job becomes. The St. Croix River basin is 7,760 square miles. That’s nearly 5 million acres of land to tend. In 2004, the St. Croix Basin Water Resources Planning Team set a goal of reducing phosphorus flowing into the river by 20% in order to reduce algae blooms and restore the river to good health. Minnesota and Wisconsin signed an official agreement to work toward this goal in 2006, and a study and plan (TMDL – total maximum daily load) was approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2012.

Now the gardeners work, hoeing and weeding, planting and tending. They plant raingardens in cities and buffers on streambanks in farm fields. Here they patch a crumbling ravine to keep sediment and nutrients out of the river; there they convert perennial crops to pastureland so that the soil will hold when it rains. As in gardening, the work is never-ending, though worthwhile and rewarding.

Raingardens catch runoff from roads and rooftops, giving the water time to soak into the ground instead of going into storm sewers. Over 1000 raingardens have been planted in Washington County to protect the St. Croix River and area lakes.

The garden teaches us two final lessons. The first is that many hands make the workload lighter. One person can plant a garden, though it is hard and bitter work, but one person can’t restore a river and neither can one agency or one organization. When everyone works together, however, the impossible becomes realistic. When all levels of government work together and in partnership with nonprofits, community groups, private landowners, and local residents, the garden begins to flourish.

Last of all, the garden urges us to teach and involve our youth. Those kids will amaze you with what they can already do – planting trees, weeding raingardens, stenciling storm drains, and planning events. They burst in with new ideas and enthusiasm, ready to help us tend the garden – not just in the future, but also today. If you show them, they will learn how to sow the seeds and nurture the plants. Equally important, the garden will teach you how to trust the child and hand him a rake.

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In gardening, as in life, the work is never done. Teach and involve our youth to sow the seeds and nurture the plants. Then, learn to stand back and let them proceed.