I started my first standing garden last summer. I had learned to garden while living in Brooklyn but ironically had mostly given it up since moving to the suburbs 18 years ago. But in the midst of the pandemic and inspired by my friend’s freshly grown arugula, I decided it was time to plant my roots again quite literally. Once I made the decision, I remember feeling a sense of urgency to get it started; as if getting my hands back into the earth would combat the stress and deep sense of loss of the pandemic. And because the sunniest spot in my yard is on the driveway by the back door, I decided to try an elevated garden. I bought the largest one I could find and purchased an excessive amount of organic soil and seedlings: arugula, romaine lettuce, two types of cherry tomatoes, string beans, peppers, parsley, rosemary, thyme, basil and marigolds. I diligently watered my garden, excitedly anticipating the new growth I expected to see. But my arugula only grew tall and lanky never producing edible leaves. The pepper plants produced one single red pepper; the tomato plants about two handfuls of cherry tomatoes. The lettuce and the herbs stayed relatively the same size never really growing much at all. The string beans outgrew their stakes and instinctively wrapped themselves around the banister behind the garden. They needed better supports and found them outside the box. 

Though I was disappointed by my harvest, I began to see my garden as a metaphor for modern life with important lessons to teach me. With too many plants in such a confined space, most of the plants just did not have the room and resources to truly grow and thrive. Most merely survived, while others withered. Just as in life, we constantly try to fit too much into too little space, mired in the never-ending task list, rushing from task to task in an effort to “just fit in one more thing;” a chronic state of “doing” that is reinforced and even rewarded by the world around us. But this comes at a cost in life just as it did in the garden box. With no space to truly settle in and allow our experience to grow to its fullest potential, the result is a constant state of busyness that can feel frenetic and shallow. Engaged in one experience, the mind distracts us with thoughts of the next one, preventing us from bringing our full attention to the present moment leaving us feeling internally unsettled and dissatisfied. Interpersonally, we might appear distracted, disinterested or even uncaring. We deprive ourselves of that which makes our experiences and our relationships their richest and most rewarding. We unwittingly add stress to our lives and limit our ability to feel joyous and alive. 

I recently planted this year’s garden with last year’s lessons in hand and much more thoughtfulness about the things I really wanted to grow. I intentionally chose fewer varieties of plants (cherry tomatoes, cucumbers and herbs) and a fewer number of plants overall. The difference is already notable. Each plant has the soil, space and nutrients it needs as well as the attention from me to ensure that each stays watered, pruned and tended to. This year’s more spacious garden is already outgrowing last year’s overly crowded one. Each plant is thriving. 

I have found this garden to be a meaningful metaphor for how to respond to the over fullness and over busyness of modern life so that we can create the conditions in which we and our relationships can truly thrive.  Of the many lessons learned, here are my top three. First, we can increase our awareness of when we are overly busy and indulging the tendency to keep “doing,” and remind ourselves to slow down and bring our full awareness to the present moment. When we fully attend to whatever we’re doing or whomever we are with, our experience and relationships can deepen and grow. Less doing, more being. Second, we can really hone in on that which is most important to us. By clarifying our most deeply held values, we can make conscious choices about where to place our attention which allows us to live in greater alignment and ultimately to feel more satisfied and fulfilled. This may mean delegating certain tasks, finding support when needed, asking for help or even setting limits and saying “no.” This can be difficult for those of us who are caregivers and who are used to overextending ourselves and putting our own needs behind those of others. Third, we can begin to routinely ask ourselves “What do I need?” in order to really tune inward and nurture ourselves as we do others. While we are very accustomed to asking others what they need, we are not as used to asking ourselves this question. When we know what our needs are we can tend to them with the care and attention that we so easily give to others. 

Just as in this year’s garden, we can create the conditions for growth in our own lives by creating space, focusing on what is most deeply important to us and attending to what we need just as we do for those we love. Over time we too can grow and flourish with the depth of experience and relationships that make life most meaningful.