On Gardening

Anya Deady is currently spending her summer in Calgary, Alberta. She is going into her third year of her Undergraduate degree at the University of King’s College and Dalhousie, where she is pursuing a Combined Honours in Contemporary Studies and English with a minor in Journalism. Her interests include creative non-fiction, pink puffer jackets and the intersection between psychoanalysis, feminism and literature. Currently, she is re-reading Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts and thinking about Nelson’s understanding of care as a radical––and igniting––practice.

Gardens yield prodigal pleasures. Their bounty includes not only fruits and flowers, vegetables and herbs, but also beauty, respite, and reflection. Gardens delight the senses, prompt thought, evoke feeling and emotion, and engage the imagination.

– Stephanie Ross, What Gardens Mean, 1998

I spent a summer in my twenties next to my mother in the gardens of millionaires. At the beginning of the season, I was tormented by sneezing fits and an unshakeable throat itch late at night. It was an unfortunate time to be sneezing all the time––the paranoia of the global pandemic was only just beginning to set in and was therefore at its most unbearable height. At this time, in bed at night, I would picture dust mites travelling across the skin on my neck, forming little societies in my salivary glands, settling down in my nasal cavities, only to escape, finally, through the corner of my eyes, which were also inflamed with this dreadful itch. It was a time in which my body and all of its cells were under constant scrutiny. These allergies were a bit amusing, though: I pictured myself as the protagonist of a satirical novel about a gardener who sneezed and itched all day, but who enjoyed the feeling of exhaustion. A day well-lived in the sunshine. But the itch and its side effects wore off eventually, as the rain came and the dust settled.

My time spent in these perfectly tended-to gardens—not a dandelion out of place—was spent thinking less about the plants themselves and more about the despairs of the very rich. What is the point, I thought, of a garden filled with roses and quickly fading lilacs, if no time is spent rejoicing in them? Perhaps more humorously, if a thistle grows in a garden and no one is around to see it, was it ever there at all? I thought at the time, beauty was so often reserved for the rich. And, I wondered, what would come of beauty if it was never commodified in the first place?

When someone would ask my mother what she thought would look pretty next to, for example, a white rose, she would routinely give the same answer: well, I think gardening is a bit like art. The painting you would hang in your living room is different than a painting I would hang in my living room. In other words, she didn’t really care for white roses, or any roses at all, really.

In one garden, I accidentally set off a squirrel trap. The neighbor poked his head over the fence. He asked, did you capture one?

I didn’t, it was just an accident.

Oh, that’s alright, he said. I’ll go get some peanuts and reset the trap.

After doing so, my mother asked what he did with them once they were captured.

Well, I put them in the back of my car. And, you know, most of them have never heard classical music before. So, I play classical music for them and release them near the water.

As it turned out, we were all just looking for something to keep us busy. Something pretty to look at. But the question remained: who gets the bounty, the beauty?

While I deadheaded once-pink peonies and swatted away bugs and their respective slimes, I tried to believe that the garden, as a concept, was in fact this pleasant and shimmering site for the imagination. And so, I decided that they were, in a way. A day spent in these quiet and still backyards was a day spent thinking. There were no children around, no one playing in the streets, in the yards. Just us, pulling weeds or planting shrubs.

At the end of a job, we often stood back to admire our work. Eventually I decided that these gardens didn’t need to be mine; I enjoyed returning to my hydrangeas in strangers’ gardens and feeling proud of their late summer blooms. The leaves always looked a little greener, the soil a little tidier, the buds and blossoms a little brighter after we were done. In turn, we would feel a little bit fulfilled, maybe even satisfied. We would go home at night and enjoy a cup of coffee or two, watch the world crumble through our television set, perhaps sit on our deck with our misfit group of plants we’d randomly acquired as the seasons changed. I soon became absolutely certain that our potted garden in our downtown apartment––which looked onto a trash-littered alleyway––was not all that much different than the perfectly-manicured mansions that we worked in. My favourite of all of our little misfits was the purple and pink fuchsia. My mother said it looked like me.

In the end, I did not get to keep the fruits and the flowers, the vegetables and the herbs, but I like to think that I got at least some of the beauty. That I got some of the respite, in a time where such a resource was in short supply. At any rate, these were the things I told myself as the exhaustion set in after a long day’s work in the gardens of the rich. I was the squirrel that got to hear a little bit of classical music for one very brief—but beautiful—moment.


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