Lessons From the Garden

Thanks to Rachel Potter for this insightful guest post.
A garden can be a good metaphor for life, and it has been used this way over and over again because, of course, people and gardens go together and always have. City dwellers might not be able to identify an eggplant or oregano, but even a hundred years ago, most people were more attuned to the natural world’s clock than they were to an actual one. People woke with the sunrise and went to bed when it got dark, and they planted and replanted their gardens to keep a continual supply of food on their tables, so when they went looking for examples to explain life they went to the garden too.

Think of how many of these gardening idioms you use in your regular speech:

She’s as busy as a bee lately.
He’s certainly a late bloomer.
This old coat is going to seed; I need to replace it.
You reap what you sow.
He needs to nip that habit in the bud.

Probably many people don’t even know what reaping or sowing is, but they still use that idiom in their speech to communicate that what goes around comes around or that you get what you deserve in life because reaping and sowing were built into the rhythm of life. You knew if you planted lettuce seeds in your garden, you wouldn’t see tomato plants coming up in that spot. (Unless you planted tomatoes there last year, but that’s another story.)

What do you do when you’ve made a mess of something? We also go back to the garden for advice for that. We talk about getting to the root of the matter or digging something up from its roots, meaning that if we don’t deal with the entire problem, it will just crop up again. We mention mending fences when we mean making up with people we’ve had words with or wronged because we know that good fences make good neighbors (i.e., enforced boundaries are important).

There are also many idioms involving weeds. When we say that someone is deep in the weeds we mean they are in real difficulty. A garden that is overrun by weeds will not be productive because the weeds will steal the nutrients from the soil and the plants there will not thrive. To weed something out means to get rid of a bad thing, a problem. It’s similar to the idea of pulling a bad tooth, but more positive because pulling weeds is a lot less painful than pulling teeth!

It may seem like gardening problems and people problems have little in common, but there are many things to be learned from watching how a garden grows. Planting in season, watching the weather, tending your plot, watering when necessary pulling weeds while they are little and manageable - they may seem like childish lessons, but they can be applied to leadership too.

It’s easier to deal with a problem when it first emerges. We know that. Watching the dynamics between people in your company and looking to see which people work well together and which hinder each other - that’s crucial too. When you have problems with your staff or coworkers, it helps to determine what the real problem is rather than trying to fix a stream of petty complaints.

If you are a gardener, you’ll automatically see life through a the lens of the garden, but others may find it helpful to take what wisdom the natural world has to offer as well.