Life Lessons My Garden Taught Me

My grandfather was a strong presence in my childhood years, in Greece. He was retired, a widower, and he lived with us. The man had his faults but his love for his grandchildren was steady. I used to trail him everywhere and he was happy to have an adoring, curious, mouthy, skinny little thing follow him around.

Trailing him as he went about tending his garden, was one of my favorite activities. He was exceedingly proud of his roses and he would turn and explain what he was doing as he went about the morning duties of a gardener. He moved deliberately; inspecting, pruning, feeding, watering, and stepping back to admire his handy work. He cultivated this rose variety that he called “the 100-petal rose” and they smelled heavenly.

He would call me over and say, “Here, come smell this, look at the petals, the color, take it all in.” And I would, and to this day, the first thing I do when I see a rose is to touch it and lean forward to take its scent in. To this day, a rose isn’t a rose to me unless it has that same heavenly scent.

Roses were the centerpiece of his garden that was framed by fruit trees and a grape arbor, under which the family would gather in the summer evenings. In the back left corner of our yard, there were three fig trees. In the summer, my grandfather would wake me up early in the morning so we could go gather figs for breakfast. If you never had a fresh, juicy fig that you picked yourself off of a giant old fig tree, you don’t know what you’re missing.

Greek summers are hot and nobody wants to be out and about in the middle of a summer day. My mother would wake up really early and finish her housework so that when the heatwave arrived, we would gather under the cool shade of the fig trees to find respite from the heat. She would put a blanket on the ground for us kids to lie down and nap, while she stayed up and chatted with her friends from the neighborhood.

My grandfather died when I was 15 years old. My mother, father, and sister have passed away and the garden of my childhood is long gone. The old neighborhood looks nothing like the one I grew up in. I moved to the US in my mid-twenties. I had two suitcases with me and a river of unseen memories. My love for gardens, the scent of roses, and the blue sea also came along.

It wasn’t long before I began my own adventures in gardening. I started as a young, impulsive, unprepared gardener in a new country, I had to contend with the New England weather and learn about plants I had never heard of. Soon my garden began to deliver the lessons I needed to learn. The journey has been humbling, illuminating, and healing. Every garden I have gotten my hands dirty in during the last 36 years, has helped me become the person I am today.

Through my various false starts and stumbles, I have been instructed on how to feel the ground I walk on, read the light as it travels, and recognize that letting in and letting go is how the seasons of our lives work.

You can read some of the lessons the garden fairies taught me below, beginning with my experience in upstate NY where I first encountered clay soil and my education began in earnest.

ON SOIL

The soil is your foundation so get to know what’s under your feet. If the soil is not suitable and fertile, it doesn’t matter what blooms you dream of growing. Anything you plant in arid soil will wither and die. Learn to amend the soil and get creative. Start small, see what works, and take it from there. Take time to plan before you dig. It will save you time, energy, and a shit load of disappointment.

ON LIGHT

Follow the light because plants have different light requirements. Plants who thrive in shade will not survive in full sun and vice versa. Let the garden show you what it needs, stay open and flexible, observe closely and learn.

ON HAVING A VISION

Design the garden that pleases you. Visualize how you want your garden to look and feel. What would you like to grow? Flowers, vegetables, herbs, or all of the above? What is important to you? Think about colors, scents, and the personality and use of the plants you want to spend time with. Take time to dream before you act and don’t be afraid to try something new. Take risks and learn from your mistakes and missteps.

My garden has changed over the years. When my daughters were young, it was designed to provide nooks and crannies for them to enjoy and share with their friends. The girls loved being outdoors and they often participated in choosing the flowers and vegetables we planted each summer. The garden looked more unruly, playful, whimsical, and experimental. As they grew up and their interests changed, I found myself wishing for a more compact garden where my favorite flowers and herbs grew close to the house.

ON BOUNDARIES

Mark the boundaries of your garden and don’t take on more than you can handle. A garden needs care and commitment and depending on what stage of life you’re in, you may not be able to give it your all. Some plants are more high maintenance than others so plan accordingly.

Keep up with the weeds or they’ll take over your garden. It doesn’t matter how big or small your garden is. Weeds will take what they can. They will zap the life out of your garden if you’re not watchful. Often, invasive plants are disguised in beautiful foliage and colors. Don’t be fooled.

ON LETTING GO

Sometimes and despite our best efforts a plant refuses to develop and thrive. It took me a while to realize that not every plant belongs in my garden or is meant to stay with me forever. There were times that I considered it a personal challenge so I would persist and keep trying to give that darn plant what it needed so it would flourish. It wouldn’t. The bottom line is if a plant refuses to thrive, let it go.

And speaking of letting go, how about this attachment to perfection? Yes, of course, there are perfectly amazing gardens, tended by professionals and amateurs alike. I love touring these gardens and looking at pictures but I am not that kind of gardener nor do I choose to be. I call myself the ever-striving gardener for a reason. I’m good with that.

ON THE SEASONS

There’s a season to everything. The garden needs to retreat underground and rest during the cold months. You may not be able to see much happening during the winter months but there is life under that blanket of snow and the garden is preparing for its brilliant comeback. Trust the seasons and be patient as you wait for the plants to emerge from their winter slumber. They will come back at their appointed time.

AND FINALLY

A garden is meant to be shared and enjoyed. One of my favorite times is when, after a long session in the garden, I get to take a shower, put on clean clothes, and head back out to the garden to stroll and take in its beauty in the twilight. Or, when a good friend visits and we make a pot of tea and take a tray outside by the stream, and sit down to enjoy our time together.

These days and as I am looking ahead at the changes that are approaching, I feel the need to keep things simpler and cleaner. I have to decide which perennial beds can stay and which need to go. I have already begun to divide the plants and share them with friends who are embarking on their own gardening adventures.

I have no doubt that the lessons will keep coming. A garden has many layers and many secrets and everything always unfolds at its own time and pace. A garden is like a loving friend; it meets us where we are and gently nudges us in the right direction.

If you’ve ever dabbled in a garden you know what I mean and you have your own stories to tell. Scroll down and share your story. I would love to read it.

As a life coach and retreat leader, Yota works with women seeking clarity, inspiration, and purpose in the midst of life changes. Her approach is intuitive and deeply influenced by her cultural roots, work and life experience, and her long-term practice of mindfulness meditation.

8 Comments

  • Natasha de Castro

    I love imagining you, a little girl, following your beloved grandfather through a garden. It gives me a feeling of this sense of delicate humanity, of the sharp, painful beauty of the temporariness and fragility of our human existences. Plants, especially flowers- and roses in particular, are for me this embodiment of temporary beauty calling me to stop for a moment and take them in because it is just that- a tiny moment that passes so fast. Caring for plants has brought a healing in me that I wonder at as I carry them in their many pots in and out of the house in the fall and the spring trying to give them as much sun but not the cold of the nights…. and the pruning and the weeding, the caring for these silent beings whose presence is the gift they give and part of that gift is the reminder of temporariness- that it is all just for a moment because as you wrote, that garden and all your family, is all physically gone now existing as a memory in your heart.

    As I read the first paragraphs, I was reminded of the little Prince and his rose and how lovingly, selflessly, he tended to her. I very quickly gave up on roses as a plant to invest my patience in, finding them either invasive (the wild ones) or too delicate. But now, I will look on the tiny plant that came with this house we are in, and I will appreciate its fragility in a new way- not be scared that this year it will develop a fungus or rare rose disease and die, but rather, I will try to pause to admire it, take it in, and think of you and your grandfather and receive the gifts of its beauty.

    Thank you Yota for these thoughts that have me excited to go out now and just take in the plants as they are, take in the garden as it grows, less as “work that needs to be done” and more as beings to be with. 🙂

    • Yota Schneider

      Dearest Natasha,

      Your reflection and response touched me deeply. Thank you. ❤️

      I can so relate with your experience with roses. I tried for years and something would always happen and I had to be happy with the two or three seasons I had with them. The rose bushes that are in my garden now have been with me since 2015. That’s a record and I’m grateful for it. As you said … roses are the perfect reminders of the temporary nature of beauty.

      You and I have shared some special moments in and out of the garden and I know how you feel about the earth you walk on and the beings you have been entrusted with. I love that about you.

      Thank you for the precious image of The Little Prince by the way.

      Love and hugs to you ❤️

  • Kathleen

    What a beautiful post, Yota! I could picture the eager apprentice and the master gardener, the heat and the colors and the smells, the river of memories that are such a part of your creative expression. I don’t think I’ve ever read a more moving account of how the past and the present come together in a garden. As you know I’m not a gardener, but I am a garden appreciator. And now I feel like I’ve just been given a whole new level of understanding of why we love gardens.

    • Yota Schneider

      Thank you Kathleen ❤️

      I wish you could have experienced the neighborhood and the garden the way they were, when you visited Greece. But like Natasha said …. change is the one constant. That’s where memory comes in to connect us to our roots … the good, the bad, and everything in between. In this case, I choose to focus on what sustained me.

      A garden needs appreciators too. Having friends who appreciate our gardening efforts adds an extra layer of motivation. And you’ve been a great appreciator. Gardens are meant to be shared and enjoyed.

      Hugs ❤️

  • Nancy Glover

    Dear Yota, I can visualize this wonderful, evocative piece in every gardening magazine on the planet!

    • Yota Schneider

      Thank you for being here, Nancy.

      It was childhood. Not an easy one. It had its ups and downs. My backyard, the garden, traditions and rituals, books and the special people in my life sustained me. These days I choose to focus and reflect on the memories that often get pushed back. They deserve to be seen and acknowledged too.

      Big hugs ❤️

  • Linda Samuels

    Oh, Yota! What beautiful stories and lessons gleaned from early gardens in Greece to now gardening in the Northeast. I loved hearing about your grandfather and his love of gardening. And clearly he inspired and influenced your love of gardening in so many ways. How beautiful.

    I have vivid memories of my going to visit my grandmother in Troy, NY. When we’d arrive she’d give me a big bear hug, grab my hand, and say, “Come! I want to show you my garden.” Like your grandfather, my grandmother LOVED her garden. She grew flowers (roses too,) and some vegetables. What I remember is her passion, her joy of sharing the colors and scents, and making sure I stopped to see, feel, smell, and find wonder in every living thing.

    While I never became a true gardener (I am a dabbler,) I have a tremendous love and respect for living, growing things. There is nothing more magical than spring. Each day new colors appear, turning the landscape from a dull range of browns and grays to vibrant pinks, yellows, greens and more. People often talk about stopping to smell the roses. Of course, they mean it poetically as in don’t rush away your life, but notice. I try to do that. But I also love to ACTUALLY stop to smell the roses or lilacs or any other beautifully scented plant I encounter. It’s one of the great joys in life.

    • Yota Schneider

      Good morning Linda ❤️

      Thank you for sharing your memories of your grandmother and her garden. That’s the thing about gardens and gardeners. They continually invite you to look, smell, and feel. It’s one of life’s ways to encourage us to be present with what is right in front of us. There’s healing in opening up to our senses and taking in the beauty that surrounds us.

      I know how important being in nature is to you. Your appreciation for color, scent, and the renewal of the seasons shows up in all you do.

      Big hugs. 💜

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