Garden Overwhelm, Equinox, & Finding Balance

My granddaughter demonstrates how some of us ARE in balance! (And why it’s nice to keep a patch of lawn!)

Happy Autumn Equinox! Even though this tipping point happens twice every year, it always seems a bit amazing to me. All over the planet, day and night are approximately the same. Every other time is always in transition from one extreme to the other. We really notice the changes here in the Pacific Northwest.

But for now, we are in balance.

Or are we?  

That final push to “make seed and die” among the annuals is in full force in the dwindling daylight hours. Production is at its peak. Everything seems to be ready at once, as we all hustle to harvest and preserve before the cold sets in.

And then suddenly, it’s fall. We pause; turn about; where did the summer go?

Everything seemed so hectic, trying to fit it all in. We were all in summer-frenzy mode – planning adventures and “getting out” as if there’d never be another chance. It was no less crazy in the plant world, a kind of urgency keenly felt throughout the topsy-turvy growing season. We had an unusually warm March with very little rain, which melted the snow pack and made the fruit trees all think it was time to bloom. May, June, July, and August all got up into the 80s; we thought we were dying (don’t laugh); and we watched helplessly as the mountain snowpack melted into the sea. We had a few summer rainstorms, bringing us false hopes, which were often whisked away by winds topping 35 mph. The plants hunkered down and stretched upward whenever they got the chance.

There is a lot going on here! It would take another blogpost to describe, but you might spot Goldenrod, Honeyberries, American Highbush Cranberries, Artichokes, Catmint, Borage, and, of course, Morning Glory :-(. We harvested a zillion zucchinis from here, too!

I blinked and the garden had transformed into an overgrown jungle.

I confess, we had so many other things going on, I did not have as much time for gardening, much less for blogging about it. And then I just kind of hit the proverbial garden wall.

Garden Overwhelm  / Get a Grip (or GO GAG).

It happens to the best of us.

I have been in Garden Overwhelm mode since early spring. It’s the incessant GO-GO-GO to get things done (to qualify as Garden Overwhelm, it doesn’t happen just once, but repeatedly). Gardening is supposed to be fun and relaxing, no?

Obviously, I set myself up for failure with all the seeds I purchased when the snow was two feet high outside and I was going nowhere except in my own imagination and was totally out of touch with reality.  I also set myself up for failure with the greenhouse, in which I escaped the chilly winds outside and gleefully planted pot after pot of cuttings, with 3 to 5 starts in each, many of which, lo and behold, actually took, which would have made a great plant sale, right? But not wanting to deal with people, preferring interaction with plants as a general course of being, I decided it’d be better to just plant them all instead (“filling in the gaps to reduce weeds,” I rationalized irrationally). Translation: That’s a lot of work!

But before we go further, let me just preface this by saying – Garden Overwhelm is a real thing in psychological circles (which is what they tend to be, i.e., round and round). Seriously. Do a Google search on Garden Overwhelm. There are – get this – “about 19,000,000 results” (even Google doesn’t know how many exactly, but it does know it took 0.45 seconds to find them, which is mind boggling in itself).

Here’s the thing. Everyone is trying to be so friggin’ helpful. I am overwhelmed just thinking about all those overwhelmed gardeners, who must also be overwhelmed or they wouldn’t be writing about it.  Here are a few search examples:

  • How to Avoid Garden Overwhelm
  • 5 Tips to Maximize your Garden Yield and Beat Overwhelm (ever since analysts told us that blogposts with numbered lists get more hits, we get a lot more of these types of sometimes-helpful-but-mostly-not articles).
  • 5 Tips for Overcoming Being Overwhelmed
  • 7 Encouraging Tips To Get the Overwhelmed Homesteader Back on Track (spoiler alert: it starts with Just Breathe and ends with Don’t Give Up)            
  • How to Plan Your Garden Without Getting Overwhelmed (a little late for that)
  • Overwhelmed? Don’t Throw in the Trowel, quips Margaret Roach, one of my favorite garden writers.

You get the picture. We won’t even get into the YouTube videos showing people with their friendly (but smug) smiles, chatting about how they have managed to get a handle on things. Whatever.

Margaret Roach of A Way to Garden fame is a great advocate of lists and the powerful feeling of accomplishment when you check things off. (I would add that making lists is also a great procrastination technique.)

Roach also reminds us, “Gardening is about progress, not perfection.”

That sounds fairly practical, because everyone’s overwhelm creation is different. We can only do what we can do. And let’s just emphasize that earlier point, that the overwhelm creation is indeed of our own making, so each and every one of us in the 19 or more million out there must own up to that, although we could give some of you the benefit of the doubt.

So let me just share with you my very own little (ahm) overwhelm chaos creation that was in full glory by the end of summer.

Firstly, my garden is not for optimal food production, although certainly, I grow quite a bit of food and could grow much more. Secondly, it is not at all neat or architecturally arranged in rows of beds in open sunshine. Those gardens are for neat freaks who appreciate production and efficiency, which seem like worthwhile goals to me, but not ones I have achieved.  Even so-called “Permaculture Food Forests,” a phrase I’ve grown to dislike for its fervent cult-like following, is not what I’ve created here. Many in permaculture also seem to be control freaks, if we can extend the label, always going into in-depth, 4-dimensionally engineered gardens that also account for energy, water, access, and function, among other factors, and which involve a detailed planning process, which I admit, I truly enjoy. It caters to my tendency to make things overly complicated in the spirit of trying to simplify.

But no, that is not what I have created here, either, although it is still the root of my intention. No, this is something else again.

Combination of nasturtiums and squashes
The nasturtiums and squashes make a beautiful combination – but my goodness! They sure decided to take over!

My garden is a conglomerate of all sorts of shapes and sizes of greenery splashed with color. It’s over 350 varieties of plants, comprising over 100 different herbs, more than 65 tree fruits, nuts, and berries, and an assortment of tubers, grains and seeds, fiber plants, dye plants, and more.

Tying it all together is the rampant morning glory (aka, bindweed), the kudzu of the Northwest, threatening world domination, proclaiming each victory with its white trumpet flowers of death by strangulation. It is quite disheartening. The thistles at times form barbed forests. I keep pulling them up, which only stimulates them further. I have to admit, I do appreciate the nettles – until they block access to my beloved raspberries. This year, I pulled a pile of them stacked taller than myself, dismayed all the while that had I gotten to them earlier, and had I been able to process them properly and connect with the market, they could have benefited someone. Still, I managed to save the seeds for making herbal salts.

And let’s not forget the cleavers, especially when they are small and rather delicate, innocuous-looking creatures that have numerous healthful attributes — but oh – give them a drizzly day followed by a little warmth and they are suddenly a prickly cloak clambering up and over the most unassuming plants, who are, after all, just trying to fit in and see a little sunshine.

Cleaver Seeds on Socks
Barkley said, “Just don’t go there.” Did I listen? Nooooo…. (cleaver seeds on socks and shoes; doing my part to ensure their distribution).

The online definition of the verb, overwhelm, is “bury or drown beneath a huge mass.”  Yes, between the morning glory, cleavers, quackgrass, thistles, and nettles, that is exactly what we have going on here.

Seriously. You can’t even walk out there – and never in a straight line – which makes a strong case for going the route of conventional market gardens. I love meandering pathways, but that’s not what we’re talking about here.

It’s a mess, really.

I always seem to be behind in what I perceive needs to be done – planting, mulching, weeding,  harvesting, pruning … whatever the task, I am behind on it. Every task becomes a triage mission. The seasons fold one into the next, each having its “such a busy time of year!” exclamation – whether it be the race to get everything in the ground, get the water systems up and running, get everything mulched before the real heat sets in, harvest and not let all that work go to waste…   In retirement, I left one race only to join several of my own making! 

Whoa whoa whoa.  Step back just a moment here. What is wrong with this picture?

Make a cup of coffee, tea, or other beverage of choice. Join me in my scenario if you will.

I take my morning cup of Joe and sit down at the outdoor table & chairs by the (totally absolutely out-of-control) greenhouse. I remind myself, we wait all year for mornings like this.

The air is mostly calm and warm. Just right, really. There is no quiet. The air is filled with the sounds of birds who have already been up for hours and getting on with their day. If only I could understand the songs of sparrows! The swallows swoop in under the eaves of the barn. The quail are twittering under the blackberries. Bees are up and foraging. Everyone is busy. Every day is full, all day long, of all these sounds of animals finding food – some from plants and flowers; others from other animals. There is a lot of killing going on out there, in case we try to paint a peaceful picture. Still, the willows rustle a bit with a slight breeze. I did not coppice them all this year, and many are quite large now.

It strikes me, the sheer biomass out here is incredible. I am in awe. The shrubs and trees create their own climate, buffer the wind, and protect others around them. There is plenty of food, water, and shelter for every creature. I try to keep the main access paths somewhat clear with a scythe or loads of woodchips, but I have found bird nests on the ground (spotted towhees, I believe), and I am careful not to disturb them. Lots of snakes this year – and frogs! – I am thankful they survived the winter – and fewer fleas, says Barkley. The cold benefited us in unforeseen ways.

When in Doubt, Consult Your Dog

Barkley contemplating world problems
Barkley has a pensive moment while he contemplates what is important.

My Aussie Shepherd, Barkley, is showing his age these days. He tends to stumble and ramble. He often gets sidetracked. Sometimes he prefers to just lie down wherever he happens to be and smell what’s around him. This is Seed Season, and the fields and gardens are full of cleaver, wild chervil, foxtails, and burdock. My furry friend has learned not to go near them. He has always considered it his job to follow me everywhere, but now, he says, sometimes it’s just not worth it. I understand. It’s not a bad way of being. We can learn a lot from our dogs.

I sigh. Nothing was ever in my control anyway. I only gave a lending hand here and there. I don’t need to harvest every little berry; there are more than I can use and plenty to share with my bird friends, who do so much to keep the insects in balance. I am supposedly retired, and even if I were not, it’s OK to stop and smell the flowers. Gardening is indeed my passion, but in the name of love, life, and balance, it’s good to do other things, like go for a walk in the forest, play music, and play with grandchildren.

The reality is, my overwhelm is of my own making and by its very nature, is something that only exists in my own mind. As such, it is only a perception of reality, not reality itself, and therefore, quite fictitious. Being fictitious, it can be altered or even erased, simply by changing my perception. It’s like being aware you are having a dream and have the power to change the way the story evolves.

But it really comes down to balance, right?

Nature can get out of balance, as can we, all caught up in our preconceived notions of what we should or should not be doing, often tied to goals and expectations. Maybe that author was on to something: Just Breathe; Don’t Give Up.

It seems appropriate at this Equinox to take time for a cup of morning tea (a little Tulsi Basil would be nice, perhaps with a few rose petals or maybe a bit of green tea), sit outside if the weather allows it, and just listen.

Mashua vines, Squashes, and Nasturtiums
In the background are the mashua vines that climbed up the trellis – 1 day before the whole thing fell over. They are related to nasturtiums (in the foreground). Squashes and Chinese Yams also climbing about.

The garden is, in its own way and on its own terms, just right the way it is. Vibrant. Pulsating. Full of life in every dimension. Self-regulating. Gaia.

I truly want to believe that, yet another part of me sometimes wants to torch the place down and walk away. 

Stop. Take another sip. 

It’s a perfect time of year to think about how we can bring things back into equilibrium if we need to. We do what we can. For the sake of sanity, survival, and increasing our happiness quotient, “Progress, not perfection.”

Sip. Let that sink in a bit.

At this moment, I am looking forward to the fall, a beautiful time of year to walk along the river and look for salmon, or to head to the hills and walk in the rustle of leaves. It’s also a time to make things, to read, play music, and to visit with friends and family. The holiday season often brings its own overwhelm, and when that starts to happen, I’m going to step back, breathe, and think of my bindweed-smothered garden – imperfect by what I envisioned, but definitely prolific. I will remind myself that it’s ok to put away my to-do lists and just enjoy the moment for what it is – as crazy and chaotic as it may sometimes seem.

The Autumn Equinox is a perfect time for reflection.

True – tasks in the garden have been a bit overly dominant of late, but it’s a creative process. The garden is evolving somewhat according to initial design, and also taking on a life of its own. This is the magic in it. It was never about control. It was about creating magic and then standing back!

The year is not over. There is still time to harvest fruits, vegetables, and seeds. In the months ahead, I will do a bit better job with cutting back the weeds and mulching, and perhaps better defining the pathways so we can find them. I will keep the kitchen warm with making various concoctions. Next year, I will focus less on planting and more on taking care of what is there; I will put more emphasis on finding balance in other things we do. I hope to share some of this.

It’s a beautiful time of year. The Equinox is when I start filling the bird feeders again. Suddenly there is a flurry of activity out my window. They are so appreciative!

So – If you have read this entire thing, you see that I, too, have added one more unhelpful article to the Garden Overwhelm series, which really could have been stated in just two words: “Just chill.”

(We all know there’s more to it than that.)

May you find your own individual equilibrium, however that may be defined!

Happy Equinox, Everyone!

And Thanks for reading,


~ * ~

Salsify Seeds
Salsify Seed

6 thoughts on “Garden Overwhelm, Equinox, & Finding Balance”

  1. Hi Blythe, Wow, I didn’t know GO-GAG was a bonafide psychological disorder! I’ve definitely experience that overwhelmed feeling each and every growing season, now I know. Maybe the real reason most of us look forward to fall is the slowdown of the garden upkeep. I can get my life back, i.e. reading, sewing, baking and oh yes, making plans for next year’s garden. Say, you must be proud of your talented granddaughter!

    • I am so glad there are people out there who understand me! After all these years, it has almost become a GO-GAG reflex! But we can’t afford to be slackers yet, right? (haha!) This is our last chance to get a grip on the chaos before winter; every bit we do now will pay for itself many times over come spring – we can’t afford to let it have a jump start! As I pull in armlength after armlength of bindweed ropes, I am wondering if it might be edible…or if maybe I could weave baskets or wreaths with it… It must be good for *something*! And there’s garlic to plant – and shrubs to tuck in with mulch – and transplanting…and..and.. there I go again! (I love winter! I love that time to make things and sit and read in the evenings under a blanky. I look forward to rainy days when I can clean and organize!) Good to hear from you, Beth!

  2. Thank goodness you’re back- I’ve missed you! Nature is so fascinating, it’s impossible not to expand our gardening endeavors and easy to get carried away with wanting more of the beauty and usefulness of plants.
    May I suggest that any time you feel like it’s all too much, you watch the video of yourself dancing near the willows. Your garden, with all its challenges, has shaped the beautiful woman you will see there, my eloquent, influential and inspiring friend.


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