When I started gardening 20 years ago, I quickly realized how beneficial gardening is on so many levels—beyond providing my family with fresh, organically grown fruits and vegetables, including unusual ones like the trombocino summer squash in the photo above. I started the garden because I was unable to find locally grown organic produce at the time. This has changed since then; I am keeping a list of my favorite shopping destinations here.
After I got married and became the adoptive mother to two young children (I recently wrote a story about that for Eating Well), gardening and cooking helped me find my place in my new family. Gardening also helped me to put down roots in rural Pennsylvania where, as a lifelong city dweller, I felt like a fish out of water. Working from a home office long before everybody else did added to my isolation. Through gardening, I was able to connect to like-minded people with the same passion.
Anyone who has ever double-dug a large garden bed can attest that gardening is hard physical work. To say it helped me stay fit is no understatement. My husband teases me saying that I’m our property’s second tractor. Filling two or three pickup truck loads full of garlic mustard each spring is exhausting. Clearing and replanting the overgrown 60-degree embankment below my garden was a bit like mountain-climbing. That I ended up with a sore wrist and some other symptoms of overuse is my own fault, I find it impossible to stop until I get the job done. Add to this all the work involved in processing bushels of homegrown tomatoes, and all the long nights in a hot kitchen canning. For sure, gardening and preserving the harvest is physically demanding.
The pandemic—I say this without shame—has made me an even more obsessed gardener than before. We live in an era that gives us many reasons to despair and feel totally helpless. Gardening has helped me to thwart that feeling and make a tiny difference by bringing biodiversity back to our plot of land. I am a big fan of Doug Tallamy’s Homegrown National Park and I have been systematically replanting areas that are overgrown with invasive plants with hundreds of native plants that I started from seed. This is definitely making a difference. We have seen more wildlife and pollinators in the past few years than ever before. When I drive around in my corner of the woods in rural Pennsylvania, I mostly see homes with manicured lawns, very few trees and shrubs, usually introduced “foreign” species and almost no natives. In the hope to inspire more people to rethink their yards, I created the Lehigh Valley Native Plant Directory as part of my Master Gardener volunteering this year.
Gardening has also helped me find a new career. For more than 20 years, I was a jack-of-all-trades and took on whatever writing, editing, or translation projects came my way. Don’t get me wrong, I was extremely lucky to always have work to keep me afloat, but I did not always particularly enjoy it. My dream was to work in my two favorite areas, food and gardening. The high demand for food and gardening content in the past couple of years has made that dream possible. Today I am exclusively working on food and gardening topics, writing for Food52 and The Spruce, with more exciting assignments on the horizon in 2023.
This summer, gardening did something else for me. It helped me keep my sanity, more than usual. Since last spring, I have been suffering from a patulous Eustachian tube in my right ear, a rare and medically harmless but debilitating condition. The Eustachian tube, which is the connection between the middle ear and the back of the nose and throat, usually only opens very briefly when you swallow, yawn, or chew. A patulous Eustachian tube opens randomly and stays open, which muffles voices, everything sounds like I’m underwater, and it also causes auotophony (hearing my own voice). It puts me into a complete brain fog, like a very bad head cold. When the tube is acting up, I cannot think clearly, and it is difficult to impossible to hold a conversation.
I’ve had migraines all my life and I know how to soldier through pain, but this is worse because it is ongoing and there is no medication to alleviate it. The only thing that gives me relief is when I put my head down, or when I am in a horizontal position because the increased blood flow makes the Eustachian tube close instantly, and if I am lucky, it will behave for a while. On a bad day, when I am sitting at my desk, or doing just about anything else other than lying in bed or on the sofa, you’ll see me constantly bending over like an ostrich sticking its head in the sand, except there is no sand.
Because weeding and other gardening activities involve putting my head down, working outside has turned out to be a blessing because it usually gives me relief. The garden, once more, is my haven. Right now, I am enjoying every single minute I can be outside in this gorgeous early fall weather.
Yesterday, my Eustachian tube was giving me trouble while I was out in the yard. I immediately moved into my ostrich mode and stood with my head upside down. This time while I sought relief, I got a surprise gift as I peeked at the world upside down. I saw a monarch butterfly that was making the rounds of the gorgeous New England asters I planted last year. The monarch and the asters are sights that make me happy no matter from what angle I look at them. This is the power of gardening.
Photos by Ted Rosen