To be grateful to Nature, we must first know it. To know nature, we must first notice it.
Although I have read dozens of books on gardening, nature, and ecology, watched countless videos, and attended many classes and lectures, my greatest teacher has been the garden herself. Since I began gardening, I’ve made it an (almost) daily practice to spend at least a few minutes walking around the garden. When done well, this walk is slow and measured. As I walk, I stop, crouch down and put my hands in the soil. I feel the water in the earth, I feel the crawling bugs and worms, and I feel the softness of the rich soil that has developed since we have become stewards of this place. I bring the soil to my nose and inhale long and deep, searching for the subtle aroma of coffee and mushrooms that tells me that the soil is healthy and vibrant. I look deep into the earth and notice the beauty of Mother Nature; how each being has its role among the others, and how they are all working together to deepen soil, cleanse water, grow more plants, and sustain more life.
Observation is a gardeners most important task. A garden, as an ecosystem, is constantly evolving. New seeds sprout, flowers blossom, fruits ripen, and seeds fall. In each of these changes, there is beauty to be observed and knowledge to be gained. To notice these changes is to become intimate with nature in a way that can never be done in the season-less, air-conditioned office building. Once we have begun to properly observe and understands nature’s systems, we can learn to restore and enhance them.
When we first began our garden at The Growing Home, I knew nearly nothing about gardening or nature. Each day, my walk around the garden would reveal to me her hidden messages and secrets. One of my earliest lessons came after I had dug a firepit in the front yard. On a morning walk, I noticed that the firepit had slightly filled with water, but later in the day, the water was gone. The next day the pattern repeated. After a few days of observation, I noticed the firepit was filling up when the irrigation to the garden uphill from it went on. The water from the irrigation was flowing down into the firepit underground. Although I had heard of groundwater before, it was at that moment that I had a real experience with it. By observing waters flow, I had begun to understand it. Later observations with water would teach me how water can be massaged and managed to help trees grow better, help gardens withstand drought, and create resilience in an ecosystem.
Another walk taught me the importance of mulch. It was the day after a rain, and I was just starting my walk. I noticed that day that the ground was unusually soft and spongy. Kneeling down to the ground, I saw that the wood chip mulch was covered with a white, webby material (something I would come to know later as mycelium or the roots of a fungi). Digging into the ground, the earth smelled rich and mushroom-y. The moisture from the rain had penetrated deep into the ground, and many worms were wriggling around the soil. Comparing the soil beneath the mulch to un-mulched areas, I found the mulched soil was looser, with a deeper color and better structure. I knew that day that I should be mulching as much of the garden as possible. Today, the mulch has created beautiful, rich soil throughout our yard.
My observation walks in the garden have been full of wonders and discoveries such at these. From the first time I saw ladybug larvae eating aphids to when I noticed the trees watering themselves in the early morning to when I first saw birds coming to eat seeds from our wildflowers. Each day on my walk, I see, smell, and learn something knew, and develop what I like to call “Garden Eyes,” the ability to fully observe the activity and changes in a garden.
Nothing has helped me more to become a beneficial participant in the garden (it also makes sure I don’t miss any ripe fruit). I put great value the time I get to spend in observation of the garden, and always wish to have more time to be in its communion. As you develop as a gardener and steward, I hope these walks help you to see nature’s beauty and balance as well.
Each day, make some time to walk around the garden. I usually take 20 to 30 minutes, but some days will be much shorter and some much longer. You don’t need to go at the same time every day (in fact, its better if you don’t).
Start off by stepping outside (I usually go barefoot), and just taking in the grand view of the garden. Notice the big changes that are happening throughout the garden. Maybe the leaves are beginning to brown with the coming of fall, maybe a fruit tree is beginning to flower or fruit, or one area is looking better than another. Take it all in.
Find an area that is particularly attractive this day. Walk towards it and sit there. Look at the area. Find anything that’s new or different (if its your first observation walk, just notice what’s there). Then look more closely. Look at individual plants, leaves, insects, whatever catches your interest. Stick your finger into the soil. Is it hard? soft? moist? dry? Dig it up a little and see what bugs you find. Sit there a little longer. See what else you notice. Start to develop your Garden Eyes.
When you feel like you’re ready to move on, find another spot and repeat the process. Observe the space as it is. After a minute or two, notice the differences between the first spot and the one you are at now. Is it more or less shady? Are the plants healthier? Do you feel more moisture in the air? Think about what could be causing these differences.
Make your way around the garden in the same fashion. I usually take a circular route around our yard. At each space, observe, enjoy, and connect. Feel the satisfaction of knowing that all the beings you are seeing are actively involved in creating your health and wellness, and you are actively involved in creating their health and wellness. While you are walking, notice areas that could use some help or where improvement projects could be done. Is there space for a new tree? Could a slope use some terracing? Would that be a good spot for trellis?
When you have found your way back to your starting point, try to recollect what you saw, felt and thought. You may choose to write some of those recollections in a notebook or make a to-do list based on your observations.
Say Thank You to the garden, and be glad to be back the next day.