Cultivating Goodness In a Garden

Read this reflective narrative about this author tending to the garden at her new home.

Kate recently moved into a home that includes more than an acre of land shaped into a garden. Keeping it landscaped takes a lot of work — as she pulled weeds, she noticed some parallels with the work it takes to cultivate our interior lives. 

My husband and I bought a secret garden. I’m talking about a little more than an acre of once-manicured land with stone pathways, dozens of stone benches, brick pavers, rare plants species, a lily pond, and an amphitheater. At its height, the property included a mini golf course.

Our home had been in the same family for almost 100 years, and it was lovingly cultivated by the original owner and then his son throughout that time. I’ve heard stories of the original owner out at night with a headlamp working on the garden and rumors of how he swapped plants with the National Arboretum. Apparently, he was also friends with a former President and would send flowers from the garden to his farm.

Every time I go outside, I find something new — a buried treasure like a hidden birdbath, a blooming flower, a tucked-away bench. Each outing is like a scavenger hunt revealing another part of the property’s story. And while we don’t have a lot of extra money to hire professional landscapers, I find myself sneaking outside to pull weeds and ivy, prune bushes, or mow the lawn as often as I can with two young boys.

I’ve found during my time here that working with your hands is addicting. There’s nothing like breathing fresh air and getting your hands a little dirty to calm your mind and restore your soul. It’s a welcome respite from the city noise only a few miles away — a mini retreat for a mom who’s often caked in toddler food and quite possibly a booger or two.

One of my biggest projects in the yard has been clearing up the ivy that’s rampant around the property — especially the ivy growing on structures or suffocating trees. What amazes me is not only how quickly it grows, but how far, long, and deep the roots are. When I start to pull a vine, I notice leaves jerk up to 20 feet away. I pull and pull and pull, taking in the sheer length of these vines, sometimes even finding myself precariously wrapped up in them. I’ve tripped over them, and even fallen backwards from the force it took to uproot these things.

Yes, you will often see me wearing protective hipster safety glasses now (can you please, please call me Joanna Gaines?), but don’t ask me about the scar on my chin.

Wisteria and kudzu are my current archenemies. At its peak, kudzu can grow up to 60 feet in a season, which is something like a foot per day. Meanwhile, wisteria can grow 25-30 feet long in a season. Both have runners and neither can be simply uprooted by hand. You need a pickaxe, a shovel, and back-breaking work. You also cannot leave any debris that could take root again after your removal attempts. Both are trying to take over every flower bed on the property — and don’t even get me started on the Virginia Creeper, poison ivy, wild honeysuckle, and wild grapevines also competing for dominance in the yard.

In all the time I’ve spent in our secret garden over the last year, my weed and ivy pulling often reminds me of how deep bad habits are in my own life — how hard they are to uproot. My bad choices, my weaknesses and failures, my sins — I see all of these in the ivy. Like ivy, my selfishness reaches to grab hold of anything it can reach. It suffocates the good, seeps into other areas of my life, and is hard to uproot or overcome. And, like ivy, pride runs deep and must be pulled out by the root, often with the effort of self-sacrifice and discipline — otherwise it will continue to grow again and again.

Cultivating this garden never ends. There will always be another weed, more ivy, a bush that needs pruning. There will always be more work. The same is true for our formation and spiritual lives. There will always be a bad habit to break, a weakness to overcome, a sin to turn into virtue. It’s a challenge to persevere and press onward toward the light and good, rich soil.

There are days when I look out at the landscape before me and sigh or want to run away. I get frustrated when I see weeds overtaking the bushes I’ve pruned or the garden bed I’m working on. But after I’m done feeling sorry for myself, or burying my hands in work elsewhere, I go out to meet the ivy and weeds — safety glasses on, pickaxe in hand,  embracing my inner Joan of Arc who reminds me, “I was born to do this.”

And we all are. We were born to do it: to find goodness, to press on, to work hard, to overcome. So whether your biggest enemy these days is the weeds in the yard or the weeds in your heart, put your gloves on and get to work. In doing so, we can cultivate a landscape that will bloom and flourish — sharing the lovely scent with the world and making it a little brighter along the way. 

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