How Gardening Changed My Life in 2020
I am a city girl. Born and raised in a suburb, always on a metro, bleached hair, fast fashion and grabbing lunch on the go.
I have a faint memory of my childhood self being obsessed with earth, mud and nature, but it all disappeared once I got into school. It never came back.
And then, well, 2020 rolled around.
Stuck on the Azores (thanks Covid!), my boyfriend and I decided to use the little land patch behind our rented apartment to start growing our own food. And it was literally life-changing.
I had no idea what I was getting into
The first thing that happened after we had tackled all the wild weeds standing in our way, sometimes taller than ourselves, and trying to prepare the earth (or should I say “got rid of the massive amount of rocks and garbage that we found instead of soil”?), was that I had to confront an uncomfortable truth:
I had no fucking idea what I was doing.
I was confronted with my own ignorance. So far I knew most vegetables and fruits only from the supermarkets. With a few exceptions, I had never seen the actual plants that produced my food. So of course I was also clueless when it came to actually care for these plants.
My cup was empty. I had to start from zero. Which was the best thing that could happen to me.
Get your hands dirty
It is very humbling to learn about the very thing that has always kept you alive: Plants. They produce your oxygen, regulate water cycles, transform the ground you walk on and become the food and energy you consume.
It was like getting in touch with a long lost family member. The one that is holding all the secrets to your ancestry and history. The missing puzzle piece of yourself.
But to truly feel the connection and to actually get the outcome you want, you have to get your hands dirty. Literally. Goodbye clean nails, hello ruined clothes.
Building a garden is a lot of work — mentally, physically and also when it comes to time. It is a commitment and as romantic and easy as some tasks may seem, oftentimes it is more exhausting than you think. Especially when you just start out and need to question everything you do.
Failure is a part of the process
As fertile as the soil on this volcanic island is and as much experience as my boyfriend had going into this, we still failed. A lot.
To name just a few examples:
A pest of larvae invaded our brussels sprouts. Not once, not twice, but four times. We could have easily killed them off with pesticides and poison. But one of our most important values was organic gardening, so we collected them by hand and tried every trick in the book. They still came back.
Our melons died suddenly just about one week before the first ones would have been edible and our zucchini plants produced two massive fruits with almost 5kg each and died right after. Birds ate our seeds on a regular basis and the lizards stole about 90% of the strawberries. Our salads grew so well they were all ripe at once and we could only eat a few before they shot up to produce seeds.
And then, after all of this hard work, our landlord decided to put pesticides everywhere.
Yep. This was my face too when I watched the man march past our door and up into the greenery. I ran out, still in my pajamas, trying to tell him with my tiny Portuguese vocabulary that he should not put the poison in our garden, our horta. He shrugged, lit up a cigarette, told me he didn’t understand and continued.
I was powerless. This is not our land. If our landlord decides to hire someone to do this work, it is not my place to tell the guy any differently. He was just doing his job on an island where there is little understanding of the consequences of pesticides and even fewer job opportunities. So, I went back inside and cried.
A matter of life and death
We were lucky. Or the man did indeed understand what I had told him. He spared our garden and a big patch of grass close by, which had just recently been cut recklessly by another man but was still the home of many insects and bumblebees.
The rest of the place, however, was a desert of dead plants turning brown and grey. Nothing survived.
The small herb and flower garden I had tried to grow in front of the house was covered with sprinkles from the poison. I had to give up on it completely to let it recover.
It smelled like chemicals and death for an entire week.
And there was now a sharp line between the part of the land that was alive and the one that was dead. It was a sad view. And made my passion for organic and sustainable gardening so much stronger.
I was angry. And disappointed. I felt like the nature surrounding me was under my protection and that I should have done more. Should have saved it. Now, it was all gone.
Why is it that we humans want to tame everything?
We get rid of wild-growing plants and weeds as we consider them “bad”, gardens and fields have to be in perfect order with strict borders, animals are only worth our attention when they are pets or food and even our own human bodies are not safe from this need to control everything (just ask the beauty industry).
While we attended our garden every day, giving love, time and energy to it, seeing the plants grow and eating our first small harvest, a process of unlearning and education started.
We started to watch documentaries, attended online classes and read books and articles about nature, composting, environmentally friendly farming, preserving food for all seasons, alternatives on plastic and indigenous wisdom from around the globe.
The more we learned, the more we realized just how little we knew.
Of course, I had started from zero anyway, but every new information led me to ten other things I wanted to learn more about. I was hooked.
Guardians of the Wilderness
A deep, ancient desire awoke in me. I wanted to be a guardian of nature. I wanted the wilderness to come back — into my life and the space around me.
I wanted to interact with plants and animals every single day, even if it meant just watching them, checking in on them, talking to them or simply reading about the social systems of trees or the importance of fungi.
Nature is not apart from us. It is not “nature and us”. We are nature. We are all one. And we, as a human species, are such a small part of life on earth.
We forget about that inside our office buildings and apartments full of Swedish furniture in our big busy cities that are robbed from the wild and the diversity of life. But it is true.
You don’t believe me?
This is the “Hillis Tree of Life”. Look for the “You are here”. If you find it.
Yep, that’s right. Pretty damn small. And pretty connected, don’t you think?
But don’t worry, we are not getting into science here. This is still a story of how gardening has changed my life. This graphic and all the other cool stuff I am now slowly learning are simply a part of my personal journey.
The Taste of a New Life
Once we started harvesting our first plants, the vegetables from the supermarket tasted and looked … wrong. Fake. Not as alive and diverse as our own food.
There are many theories (from spiritual to scientific) on why this is the case but I think the biggest factor is your interaction with the entire process and also the freshness of your produce. No transport, no chemicals, no plastic. Just food. Just energy. From your own hands.
Despite our failures, we were blessed with cabbage, leek, tomatoes, beans, garlic, strawberries, chilies, eggplants and paprika over the months. While I am writing this, there are carrots and beetroots slowly forming.
Looking at this list, I am so so so proud. I feel accomplished. Nurtured.
Neighbors and friends also gifted us bananas, potatoes, sweet potatoes, pumpkins, guave, khakis and oranges from their gardens. Somewhere between seeding out our first plants and making tomato concentrate from scratch, we had become a part of the community around us.
So, what did gardening teach me?
Gardening has transformed me in so many ways.
It has made me more resilient. The knowledge of plants is primal and used to be crucial for survival. Learning it now feels like coming home.
I am more connected with myself and the world around me. I feel rooted. And I feel how interwoven I am with every living being surrounding me.
It taught me how sharing food makes you a part of something bigger than yourself and will always be rewarded with love.
It forces you to interact with your responsibility towards nature. Not only when it comes to consumerism but also when it comes to the protection of nature and knowledge as well as how we are taught to think about it.
It starts with “Where and how was this food grown, produced and treated?” and “Do I really need [insert anything you can buy] in my life?” over “How can we fight the plastic pandemic?” to “We need to fight for justice for indigenous people and inhabitants of regions affected by our careless behavior towards nature” and finally ends with “Why do I want to rip out the weeds so badly and plant everything in a straight line?“ and “I am deeply connected and grateful to be a part of life on earth.”
It has given me meaning. A purpose. And a peace of mind that was hard to find this year.
It allowed me to be wild. Unapologetic. It showed me my own human nature in the most humbling, gentle and direct way possible.
Finally, it has shifted how I want my future to look like. I used to dream of modern buildings with a pool and a passport full of stamps. Now I simply want a place full of trees, land to farm, some animals and flowers everywhere. My hands dirty and my heart singing.
It started with a few seeds stuck into the earth. And will end with a forest full of love.
I would never have guessed where 2020 and gardening would lead me. It made me choose a long, uncomfortable but endlessly rewarding journey to reconnect, to unlearn and to grow.