Everything I need to know about the High Holidays I learned from gardening

Kol Nidre 5781

Contrary to what many people expect, when I tell them I grew up in Texas, I historically would not consider myself particularly outdoorsy. In fact, when most people hear about my Texas upbringing, I am met with a mix of surprise and disappointment. I don’t have an accent. I have somehow managed to avoid deep involvement in football fandom. I never even owned a pair of cowboy boots until I had been living in New York for a solid 7 or 8 years. And I have never once roped a steer. I credit some of this to the fact that I grew up in a suburb of Houston. It was less cowboys and cactuses than strip malls and swamps. Despite the claims of my New Yorker in-laws, I would not call myself a pioneer woman by any measure. 

No, anything I may have retained in terms of wilderness survival skills or interaction with the natural world is mostly to the credit of my grandmother. Every summer, my family would visit my grandparents at their house in Salt Lake City and their vacation home in western Wyoming, known in my family as “the cabin.” Under the guidance of my Grandma, a former girl scout troop leader, my siblings and I were engaged in a wide variety of outdoor activities. 

We would gather and press wildflowers between the pages of books, consulting guidebooks to identify each kind. We made an underwater viewer out of coffee cans and plastic wrap. I learned how to build a fire, how to choose the right wood and how to cook over an open flame. In the evenings, we went for walks to spot animals.

My grandmother was also an avid gardener, both at her home in Salt Lake City and at the cabin. My grandmother would pour out the coffee grinds every morning on the plant beds. She worked in a wide brimmed hat that was affectionately known as the “daffodil” hat, after her Girl Scout name. We would pick cherries, peaches, and pears from the trees in the yard.  

I have been rediscovering some of those long-latent skills recently. As some of you might already know, my family and I moved into our first house this spring. After years of focusing my attention on more interior pursuits, and over a decade of life as an urban apartment dweller, life as a suburban homeowner was going to require a different set of skills. One of the things I was most looking forward to about our move was having some outdoor space of our own – a place for the kids to play and for me to try my hand at gardening. I was eager to expand from my container herb garden. I have been surprised at how much  the memories of my childhood have bubbled up over the past several months. But there has also been a steep learning curve. 

We closed on the house in March, shortly after the pandemic began shutting everything down. Although I had been preparing myself for a gardening adventure for some time, suddenly it seemed that everyone was eager to transform their yards into an outdoor oasis and there was a run on gardening supplies. 

Why is it that so many people are turning to gardening right now, anyway? Some of it may be for obvious reasons – people are looking for something to do with more time at home during the pandemic. With limited options for entertainment over the summer, and outdoor, socially distant gathering the safest choice, many people have a renewed interest in sprucing up their outdoor space. And of course there are the positive benefits that many longtime gardeners cite: you’re getting fresh air, exercise, experiencing nature. There is also the meditative aspect – working with your hands can be a way to turn off the busy parts of our minds. 

All of these are good things and good reasons to garden, but there may be more to it. In many ways, we can see ourselves reflected in the cycles of our gardens. A recent book by Sue Stuart-Smith, a psychiatrist and spouse of a renowned British gardener, highlights the ways that gardening or spending time in gardens can be therapeutic. The life cycles of the garden can be a metaphor for the cycles of our own lives. Our gardens and our relationship to them – whether you have several acres or a pot on a windowsill – can reveal lessons. But I think the activity of gardening itself is instructive

It occurred to me at some point over the summer, asking myself what I was doing in the sweltering heat knee deep in weeds, that actually the process of gardening can teach us something about teshuva. 

So here it is: Everything I need to know about the High Holy Days I learned from gardening. 

Act I: Making the cut

As we prepared to move in this spring, and faced with nowhere to go and no one to see, I decided to engage the kids in some gardening. The yard had been neglected for some time. The beds were buried in several inches of dead leaves under layers of twisting ivy vines. It was clear that before I could pursue my gardening dreams, a little clean up was in order. 

The vines had grown over everything – winding their way between the boards of the fence, up one side of the house, burrowing underground to re-emerge 20 feet away. They were holding fast to an abandoned porch swing. They had climbed up trees and entangled themselves in the branches of neighboring properties. They had hardened and twisted themselves on trellises into something that resembles what I imagine the staff Moses held up to part the sea.

My 5 year old and I waded into the vines, pulling back the tangled stems to try to uncover what was beneath. He was a very enthusiastic participant in this, and it was really the perfect activity for someone his age. Let loose with a pair of clippers, I let him hack away indiscriminately.  This was the first cut – anything else – before planning, or even thinking about planting something, we first had to find out what was there, lying beneath the overgrowth and possibly several years worth of fallen leaves and twigs. 

There was something so satisfying and cathartic about clearing away the vines. It felt that as I pulled free handfuls of tangled leaves that I was clearing away the clutter in my mind and heart, too. When we engage in teshuva, we are participating in an act of spiritual decluttering. We have to clear out the overgrowth, the mental and emotional weeds, to know what lies beneath. We have to know what we’re dealing with before we can make a plan for what needs to be done. Until we are honest with ourselves about what we need to change, we cannot really begin the process of teshuva. 

Even in the muck of things you might discover something useful – I found fully functional and apparently undamaged gardening tools buried in the vines that I am fairly confident had been there for years. When we take stock of everything, we know what we need to let go of and what resources we have to work with. 

Having tackled the ivy, I moved onto the next challenge: the bushes. Ah…the bushes. 

Like the vines, I had no clue what I was dealing with.

As everything bloomed in the spring, I was dazzled by the beauty of the dogwood and cherry tree and the flowering shrubs on the side of my driveway. But when I looked closely, I realized that behind those distracting blossoms lay a tangled mess.Like the flowerbeds in the back, the  ground was littered with leaves. I found cigarette butts and wrappers under there, a rusted bicycle chain, straggly-looking roses that appeared to be growing out of old stumps. 

Heavy with blooms, the branches were dangling over the driveway, prepared to hit someone in the face. They crossed over each other, tangled together in a mass about 12 feet in the air, roped together by yet another mysterious vining plant. 

And don’t get me started on the giant shrubbery blocking our view from the driveway and access to the sidewalk. 

(Yes, I said shrubbery. There have been many Monty Python jokes since.)

I puzzled over what to do with these. The indiscriminate hacking approach that I took with the vines was less likely to work in this case. Initially, it was overwhelming and I was intimidated to jump in- I don’t know what I’m doing! But I knew it had to be done and waded in anyway. What if I did it wrong and killed the plant?  It was clear that I needed the right tools and the right information for the job. 

I began reading gardening websites and even ordered a book about pruning written by Cass Turnbull, founder of an organization called “Plant Amnesty” whose mission is “working to end the senseless torture and mutilation of trees and shrubs.” It sounded like exactly what I needed. 

The most helpful thing I learned from the fine people at Plant Amnesty was that a lot of what we are responding to when we see an overgrown plant is messiness, which can be immediately addressed by pruning out the deadwood. But clearing out the deadwood, cutting out the parts that are no longer growing, you achieve a few things: It improves the overall appearance, without doing anything else. By taking out the dead parts, the leftovers, the stuff that you don’t need anymore, you are better able to see the structure and beauty of the rest of the plant. To see the good that is already there. 

Secondly, clearing out the deadwood is healthier for the plant. It isn’t carrying the weight of extra stuff that is no longer needed, literally weighing it down. It allows air to circulate and light to reach the interior that had previously been in shadow. This allows for new growth. It gives sustenance to the young shoots that are trying to survive. Without cutting back on what is unneeded, you can stifle the growth of exactly what it is you’re trying to cultivate. 

When we can let go of the deadwood, the thoughts, grievances, grudges that are taking up space and not serving us well, we let the qualities that we want to cultivate breathe and grow. We can better appreciate we might discover strengths or parts of ourselves that we forgot were there. We make space to grow into the people we want to be.

Act II: Welcome to the Jungle

I had thought the bulk of my work was done early in the spring, just trying to get things cleaned up. I cleared a patch of land and planted vegetable seeds. I was in for a surprise when the spring and summer growth really got started, when what I had believed to be a bunch of dead ivy suddenly sprouted like crazy with leaves that I didn’t recognize. 

By July, with steamy hot days, I felt like I was living in the midst of a jungle. Any time I tried to whack the vines back, it was as if they sent out 10 foot long runners overnight. It was woman vs. nature. 

I don’t know at what point the weeds took over the grass, but it took me by surprise. I was hot. I was tired. I was frustrated. It didn’t seem to matter how much time I spent cutting back, clipping back the branches that just didn’t look right, pulling weeds, untangling the vines that threatened to take over. It just didn’t seem like I was making much progress. 

By mid August I had declared detente- I had put in a summer’s worth of effort. I had made some mistakes early on, and I was going to have to wait for the next growth cycle to see what would become of them. At a certain point, I had to accept that there was only so much that I could do right now. I was starting with a situation that I didn’t create, trying to work as best I could with what was there. The spring and summer in my garden, like my experience of the world in the pandemic, were an exercise in accepting uncertainty. I didn’t know what would happen. I didn’t know what would grow until it did. I didn’t know what anything was, whether it would bloom, how it would behave until I was in that moment. I could do my part to guide things along – watering, providing sunlight, maybe assisting with some pruning or weed removal as needed. But I had to accept that there were parts of this situation that were beyond my control. I could rip everything out and start from scratch, but I wanted to give things a chance to grow, to see what could be rehabilitated, what could become beautiful with just a little extra TLC. 

The High Holy days, and the process of teshuva can be like this, too. We can work, and do our part, but at a certain point we have to come to terms with the parts of ourselves, our circumstances, and others that we cannot change or control. We have to lean into not-knowing, and give permission for some uncertainty in the process itself. If we release, we can also allow ourselves to be pleasantly surprised by what emerges. What new insights will grow, that we never would have known were there? What unexpected beauty will we discover? 

This is the first year I have found myself actually looking forward to fall. 

Summer has generally been my favorite time of year. I look forward to the warmer weather, and longer days. I love spending time at the pool or the beach and sitting outside on warm summer evenings. My heart lightens. 

But this year I have a new appreciation for the arrival of the cooler seasons. I am more in touch with the cycles of growth and death. The crisp scent of new growth in the spring, the steaming of vegetation at the height of the summer, the sweet decay as leaves curl up and dry. After a long summer of labor, I’m ready to put the garden to bed. 

It’s strange, but in a way I’m looking forward to cutting back the wilted stalks this fall and leaving what is there to rest. I think of the layers of leaves and mulch gradually breaking down through the winter, feeding the soil so that it can be even better next spring. As the seasons turn, I am taking this time to reflect on what I learned this year, prepare for the fall, and think ahead to next spring. 

I will have to wait to see the results of my efforts. The payoff of all of the time I spent pruning might not be for months, or possibly years. Like gardening, the process of teshuva, of repairing and transforming into who we want to be, takes time. It requires patience, periods of activity and periods of waiting. And of course our task is never done – there is always maintenance to do and more to learn. 

So let’s use our time together this Yom Kippur to clear out the overgrowth, remove the deadwood, accept what is, and to have patience to allow something new and even more beautiful to flourish from the work we do this holiday season.