Gardens are Just Zoos for Plants: my sabbatical in the garden

I’m from rural Arkansas and all my life my family has had a garden. The gardens varied in size and purpose, but tending to plants is something I saw my parents do all my life. So when COVID-19 knocked us on our heels and confined us to our homes, it made sense that I should use my extended time at home trying to keep greenery alive.

I started with a single tomato; a vine-y, indeterminate hybrid called Early Girl. I soon got brave and added four basil plants (this is too many basil plants) and after a friendly chat with a neighbor received a gift of five assorted seedlings.

I didn’t know what to do at this point. Or more accurately, I didn’t know that there was more to do than putting them in the ground and watering them occasionally. My parents always made it look easy, though I have decided that my dad must be in constant communion with the gods of nature.

It is not easy. I am not good at it. I am an objectively terrible gardener.

So, predictably, I used my sabbatical to learn absolutely everything I could about gardening. Equally predictably, the lessons I learned reminded me of leadership lessons that I’ve struggled to learn along the way.

Gardening Lessons

  1. Plant today what you need tomorrow. Planning out a garden, it turns out, required a lot of time and knowledge. You have to know what plants are friends or enemies (because gardens are just zoos for plants), and if you want to use seeds or seedlings. You have to guess how much one plant will produce, and you have to guess how much support they will need in the future (because you have to do that early before it gets out of hand).
  2. Give them space to grow, or create space later. I did not quite believe the information about how to space the plants. The basil got lined up in a tight, orderly row, and later I had to transplant them. Transplanting a plant is cutting it out of the ground, moving it, and hoping that it looks sad because the view is worse, not because it’s contemplating death. Even after that, I didn’t account for the wild tomato which then strangled one of the basils. Because… gardens are just zoos for plants.
  3. Track what matters and do something with it. I set up a tidy gardening journal for myself, and I’m tracking all sorts of nonsense that I definitely don’t need and won’t use. Like… the planting depth of seeds, even though I started with seedlings. And the preferred pH of the soil even though I’m not testing it. But also some useful things like, the type of food each one needs, and when I last pruned them. How much water they need versus what I actually gave them (and I made changes appropriately).
  4. Prune purposely and decisively. I learned so much about pruning tomatoes, friends. With indeterminate tomatoes you have to prune the vines or they will leave their enclosure and take over your lawn (gardens are zoos). But for many of my plants, I learned that you have to prune the old parts to keep the plants healthy. And, sometimes you have to prune the healthy parts so the plant will focus on producing vegetables.
  5. Let them settle into any changes. It was really scary when I moved plants and watched them wilt, knowing I had to wait for them to regain their balance. I thought I had killed every plant in my yard at least once, including those that I was intentionally pruning. And despite my truly terrible plant husbandry, they had a drive to thrive and have come through the other side happy and healthy.

Leadership Lessons

  1. Plant today what you need tomorrow. Your work, no matter what you do, will take time. If you know what your goals are, you can start the process now and patiently guide it to where it needs to go.
  2. Give them space to grow, or create space later. In order to flourish, you need to allow room to move into. Or, prepare a move once they’ve outgrown the space you planned.
  3. Track what matters and do something with it. I used to say “if you don’t track it, you can’t change it” but I think it’s true the other way around, too. If you’re not going to change it, consider why you’re keeping track of it. Know what allows your team to reach their full potential, and monitor how well you help them do it.
  4. Prune purposely and decisively. Whether it’s unassigning ill-suited tasks, or putting a stop to toxic behaviors, avoiding your own pain by doing something halfway can set the entire organism up for failure.
  5. Let them settle into any changes. One thing about leadership that never gets easier for me is trusting that what I am observing is what is actually happening. And when I make changes, the cultivation period after that is excruciating. Patience in the face of slow growth that I can’t always see, tests my faith in myself.

But here’s the thing…

I know I said I was bad at gardening, and… there are days when I feel that I’m bad at leading. But my garden is actually thriving. I rehabilitated a cucumber plant and some roses. I harvested 8lbs of tomatoes every other day at the height of their growth period. I have tiny little peppers clinging to life on a pepper bush.

The plants are not picture perfect. They are not staying in their containers, but they are well-fed, supported as much as they are willing to be, and happily making more vegetables than I can shake a stick at.

And shouldn’t that be true for those we lead, too? That perfection shouldn’t be measured on what we wish someone could do, but rather one what they were built to do.

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