how does your ugly garden grow

This is the free, Sunday edition of Culture Study — the newsletter from Anne Helen Petersen, which you can read about here. If you like it and want more like it in your inbox, consider subscribing.

My garden is ugly. Not, like, “overgrown and beautifully, lusciously ugly” or “filled with thriving natural grasses that aren’t photogenic” ugly. It’s just bad. Parts of it are straight up dead. This year alone I’ve battled: root rot, slugs, deer, powdery mildew, some other kind of mildew, little tiny black beetles that aren’t flea beetles, little tiny black beetles that ARE flea beetles, cabbage moths, poor pollination, torrential June rains, and blistering August heat.

My cucumbers are shriveled. My tomatoes are wraiths. My tomatillos are droopy. My green beans laughed at me and produced one bean before succumbing fully to slugs. My petunias hate me. Last week my otherwise lovely dinosaur kale got munched to the bone by the local buck who found the one small break in the deer fence. But I have six beautiful spaghetti squash, a billion peppers, some adequate basil, and ample supplies of arugula volunteers that sprouted on their own after last year’s plants went to seed.

Now, I know there are solutions to all of these problems. I regularly seek help with them on Twitter, where my followers are kind enough to talk me through all sorts of gardening questions. I’ve vegetable gardened for the last decade, but almost always in places where gardening is comparatively easy: Oregon, Seattle, Walla Walla. Montana gardening is hard. The season starts late, the deer are voracious, the soil has different demands, the tomatoes want to mostly be left alone until about August.

For awhile, I felt very embarrassed about my bad tomatoes. They were bad last year, too. Two years ago, I couldn’t even get my zucchini to yield fruit, and as anyone who has ever grown zucchini will tell you, that is a feat. (This year, I left for a week and got a zucchini approximately the size of my thigh). Part of my shame had to do with economics: some vegetable gardeners, including myself, try and justify the cost of vegetables starts (the little seedlings you buy in the little plastic containers instead of sowing your own seeds) by saying this will save me money all summer. Or they envision casually whipping up a delicious summer meal using the cornucopia of vegetables in their backyard. Or they want to be the type of person who gardens, not necessarily do the gardening.

I love the gardening. I love the watering, the watching, the planting, the weeding. In the past, doing those things yielded something like abundance. That’s no longer the case — and it might take me years to get to that point again, at least with this backyard, this weather, this soil, this ability.

But I had a weird and lovely revelation about my ugly garden last week. So long as I actually like doing it, none of the other stuff matters. The health of the vegetables or the number of them — it doesn’t matter. If it dies, it dies; if it thrives, that’s good too. It’s not about the end product, but the daily practice of the garden: the great joy I get, as Samin Nostrat wrote about so beautifully, in watching a plant grow and change, even if it’s not growing and changing quite the way I’d like it to.

If I were growing vegetables for sustenance, that’d be a different story. But I’m not a farmer, not even a mini-farmer. I’m a bad gardener, and bad gardening is my hobby. Not a hobby to do for show. Not something I can optimize or monetize. Instead, it sharpens my senses, gives me time in my own echoing mind — and, most importantly, it is not my job. What matters, then, is the doing, even if it’s the doing poorly. Any actual vegetables are just a bonus.

Next year I might get better, and that might feel good. But I might fuck it all up again, and I’m pretty excited about not feeling bad about that, either. I’ve been so trained to think of every “leisure” activity as something that can make me better in some way — faster, fitter, stronger, smarter — that I’ve forgotten, and I know I’m not alone, that leisure doesn’t have to be about self-improvement, at least not explicitly. It can also just be about cultivating solitude (which, following Cal Newport, I like to think of as “freedom from other people’s minds,” not necessarily physical solitude), or finding out what you actually like, or, depending on your personality, doing things for others.

I find all of those things to be more restorative, more like actual self-care, than those prescribed for us within capitalism: skincare routines, pedicures, sweet treats, elaborate vacations, even massages — none of it feels as good as actually figuring out something you like to do, and then doing it as if no one was watching, and no one ever will, and it will never, ever find a place on your resume.

Things I Read and Loved This Week:

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