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The Great Outdoors

In Defense Of Chaos Gardening

pots of herbs on a shelf
Kelsey McKinney/Defector

This morning, I went for a beautiful chilly spring walk. I led my dog on the two-mile loop we often take on Sundays, up to an adorable coffee shop where we ate a delicious English muffin with ham on it, drank a little cappuccino, relished in the joy of small mornings, and then began our journey back home. The walk home is idyllic: brick sidewalks, old streets, houses with shutters painted to match their doors. There are many things I love about living in a city, but overlapping my routine with that of strangers is one of my favorites. We passed the bars with people out at brunch, hooting and hollering; the fans in their jerseys on their way to the game; the children bailing out of their strollers to sprint toward the park. At the end of the walk, we walk through the farmer's market, and pick up a bouquet of tulips, yellow like good butter.

This week, the first of the starter plants arrived. These are little sprouts, in tiny plastic cups, made to be taken home and planted in your garden. They are less than a foot tall, tiny guys. I bought them once, two springs ago, when I planted my very first garden. And I will never buy them again. I do not need them now. I will never need them. Chaos sows my garden each year now. And in chaos I reap treasures beyond my wildest dreams.

My first year as a gardener, I made a Pinterest board where I pinned tons of images about companion planting, and how to map out individual square feet and plant things within them. I made a little map in my journal of where I planted each of my starter plants. I was trying so hard. I was so nervous! Dumbass!

I should have known that level of devotion could never continue! Like many depressed people, my ambitions were great for my first garden and my execution mediocre. After very careful planning, I kept forgetting my garden. Plants died in their beds. I went on vacation and a bunch of cherry tomatoes fell into the bed and rotted there. Oh well! Like all naive resolutions, I vowed to be different next spring. I would not be a trash chaotic gardener. I would be planned and resolute.

But then, something funny happened. Turns out, you don't actually have to be very good at gardening to have a garden. After I left all my plants to rot in their beds, last spring, I noticed something. What was that? It was a little plant in my bed! It was a little tomato plant!! I did not need to buy the starter plant because my bad garden hygiene is planting stuff. The garden will build itself. From the corpses of my neglect, I gained seven (7!!!!) tomato plants last year. Were they all cherry tomatoes? Yeah! What of it? Cherry tomatoes rule!

cherry tomatoes
My chaos tomato plants in August of last year.Kelsey McKinney/Defector

And because I worry about my memory, about forgetting the plants, I have taken all the big bottles (the red vermouth bottles in particular, but also some wine bottles) and I fill them with water and I shove them into the dirt. They will keep the plants alive for me if I forget.

This was a lesson from the universe. I did not have to be so precise. I could be an idiot. That was fine! The garden would grow anyway as long as I watered it. So last year, I gave up on annuals. Who needs them. I bought a bunch of perennial seeds for big flowers: marigolds and zinnias mostly. This morning, after returning from my walk, I mixed the four bags of seeds in the palm of my hand. I poked holes in the dirt and dropped some mystery seeds in there. I know no gods or masters! The garden will do as it pleases! I am neither its mother nor its keeper, but its comrade!

Already it is growing oregano in the plant bed and herbs on the shelf. The honeysuckle plants are thriving, growing up toward the sun. The flowers I planted this morning may bloom. They may not. Nature is on her own now. Who am I to try and control her? I cannot! I will not! There are native plants (weeds?) growing up between the bricks of the patio. Aren't they beautiful? They make my home look green. I allow them to live.

backyard with dog
My dog Georgia was very confused about what I was doing out here.

The two native scarlet honeysuckle plants I bought "needed to be cut back" over the winter. I didn't cut them back. I was sad! It was cold! And guess what? It does not fucking matter. They have returned with a vigor and a lust for life. They are growing all over the place!

A lesson the garden taught me last year is that I don't have to do everything perfectly. I can have a garden and not be the best gardener of all time. I can have a garden really without even trying very hard. The plants live on their own without me. I am but their steward. The garden is chaos, but it is mine.

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