Self-Imposed Limitations, Sustainability, and Creatively Breaking Rules

Sign Wrapped Around Corner, "Turning Point" (Click to buy at’ve hit a turning point. Actually, several of them. I figure if you’re lucky, you get a lot of them, because they are opportunities for growth, which, if you’re talking about a garden, is a good thing.

The turning points for me were two-fold. The first was when I was harvesting my garlic last summer, only to discover that the mulch I had layered around the bulbs to help suppress weeds and conserve moisture was probably responsible for the bulbs rotting in the ground. Anything that takes 9 months of tender loving care to bring to maturity becomes akin to offspring, and it is particularly heartbreaking to see them “go bad.” It set me to re-evaluating what I was trying to accomplish – in the garden, in my life – where it was that I went terribly wrong – one of those midlife crises that occur with alarming frequency throughout your life, not just at the moving midpoint. Could I keep doing this?

Here is the thing with growing garlic:

  • It takes up more space than you realize, because you have to factor in at least a 4-year rotation cycle (we do 6);
  • It’s a labor-intensive crop – garlic does not compete well with weeds;
  • There is a narrow harvest window – too early, you get puny bulbs – too late, your bulbs split open and won’t last;
  • Harvest time is right in the middle of summer, 4th of July onward, which is a busy time when you might want to be doing other things;
  • A fair amount of space is required for proper curing – without good airflow, they’ll mold, meaning you could go through all that work to grow good bulbs, only to blow everything at the end;
  • If you want to make money at it – which is difficult if you factor in labor costs – you have to market & sell the stuff – you can’t just give it away to everyone who is overjoyed to try a few samples, and
  • Contrary to popular belief, garlic won’t buy you love.

Don’t get me wrong – I love garlic and I love growing it – and the sight of row upon row of garlic standing tall in the field is a beautiful sight indeed – but you have to recognize its limitations as well as the limitations it imposes.

Male Robin with Worms for Chicks (click to buy at second turning point was returning from a trip in late November to find everything under a foot of snow, and realizing with horror that flocks of birds could have died in my absence, along with thousands – yes, thousands – of worms. You might think the two are related, and in some ways, they are. Fortunately, other family members kept our little bird friends alive, but I was bluntly faced with the fact that I was a birdseed addict. I couldn’t stop buying the stuff. More and more birds kept coming. The more I bought, the more they came. They made me feel happy inside, but the increasing demand couldn’t be ignored. It was starting to add up. Question: did I need them to make me feel good about myself, believing I was making their lives easier? Or was I just making them ever more dependent on me, and in the process, chaining myself to a winter of watching them out the window? I was trading my freedom for this amusement.

And as for the lowly worms? Highly esteemed they are at the Barbolian Fields vermiculture headquarters. They have increased in numbers to where now they take up 6 penthouses, which have to be situated outside – somewhat protected by the elements, but not entirely. Fortunately, their instincts took over, their metabolisms slowed below that of the lowly slug (if I may be so judgmental), they retreated to the center of the bins, and I am happy to report they survived. But it could have been a much different story.

The eye-opening moment was when I realized how things I do can also limit what I can do. They have been my own choices. And once those choices become responsibilities, I can’t necessarily just quit.

“A truly creative person rids him or herself of all self-imposed limitations,” said Gerald Jampolsky. And quicker than you can say, “Who the heck is Gerald Jampolsky?”, let me just say he’s an American psychiatrist.

I can’t say that I’ve read his book, The “Oh Shit” Factor: Waste Management for Our Minds, but I would probably relate to anyone who wrote an entire book under such a title. He talks a lot about forgiveness and unconditional love. I can relate to that, too.

What does this have to do with gardening?

It set me on a quest for a better way. Or at least a different way. Because it’s not a turning point unless you take a step in a different direction. The first step is being honest with yourself. Admitting you have a problem.

(Here we go again. “Welcome, Blythe.”)

Because as much as I talk about trying to live a sustainable lifestyle, the truth is, what I’m doing is hardly sustainable.

So, what is sustainability, anyway? It’s the buzzword of the day. It’s “outside the box.” It’s Organic. It’s Green. It is used so frequently, it has lost its influence – and maybe it no longer reflects its original intention.

I can tell you what sustainability is not:

  • The work I do in the garden is not sustainable – it’s pure craziness.
  • Making birds rely on my handouts is neither healthy nor sustainable.
  • My attempt to capture rainwater is a start, true, but a mere fraction of what could be captured with a bigger system – and it does not solve the problem of how to deal with the drought we get in the summer.
  • The wind rips through here nearly every day – yet I have never managed to capture it. It’s this invisible ever-present force that can only be seen by what it moves. It seems out of reach to me – uncontrollable – slipping through my fingers every time – a lost opportunity.

Getting down helps you to look up. Looking in helps you to look out.

If I am to rid myself of self-imposed limitations, I need to get creative.

What if instead of buying seed and feeding “my” birds (ha!) – I free them to be what they are – birds – not pets – and assist them by planting shrubs that provide more natural habitat, fruits throughout the year, and shelter from the wind and cold. (Ok, I will probably always feed the birds a few treats – but it doesn’t need to be their sole source of food.)

What if I reconsidered the whole garlic operation? Too much work? Maybe I could trade help with weeding for shares of garlic – or maybe I could make it a “U-Pick Garlic” farm and let people harvest and cure their own. We could even turn it into an agro-tourism event with music & food …. Hmmm, getting a little ahead of myself on that one – but Sequim already has a zillion people coming through this little town to swoon in fields of lavender – why not attract the salsa crowd? I think I’m on to something here.

Cognac Template, Giclee Print, by Alphonse Mucha (click to buy at
Take a break already!

And instead of planting rows and rows of garlic in a single plot, how about mixing them up with other plants throughout the garden where their legendary protective qualities can be used to better advantage? For that matter, why not mix up the whole garden? Monoculture beds are convenient, but perhaps they just create an obvious target for insects. Why not intersperse plants that attract bees, repel insects, add nutrients, and provide shade, mulch, and other benefits?

The truth is, my garden is already a chaotic mess. Grass and morning glory are everywhere. I may have excuses as to why it got so far out of control – lack of boundaries and all that – but life happens – and if you are a slave to your garden, it’s hardly sustainable unless you just enjoy that kind of martyrdom.  But what if I recognized that chaos is ok – in fact, it’s to be expected – maybe even encouraged? Maybe I need to relax a little bit. Neatness counts, but psychotic control and continued sense of failure will not enrich my life. Let it go while I take time to smell the roses. It’s ok to be less than perfect.

And lastly – while I’m on this vent – my garden is boring. Surprising, but true. Sure, certain areas stand out, but for the most part, it’s just a series of traditional squares and rows and rectangles. A failed attempt at orderliness. What if I did something to make the garden more fun? Why not make more little secret hideaways? Why not make it a place where people are encouraged to wander? Why not make it a place where sometimes you just have to stop dead in your tracks because the world around you is just so incredibly gorgeous that you have to pinch yourself with the realization of how lucky you are to be here?

I am talking about bridging the gap between a “garden” and a “small farm.” We always want to compartmentalize things. “Oh she has a beautiful garden” conjures up images of massive flowers and winding pathways leading to some focal point, like a garden gate, statue, or pond. Whereas, “Oh she has a nice little farm” conjures up rows of veggies and a small tractor tilling the ground between them. Efficient. Orderly.

What if we blur these distinctions?

There is still time to change. It is still garden planning season.

It is time to break some rules.

Not real rules, mind you. Self-imposed-limitation-type rules. Things we hold to be self-evident. It is time to make things more sustainable in terms of both lifestyle and the environment. Time to get creative.

"In the Secret Garden" by Gustave Doyen	 (Buy at
In the process, we have this great opportunity to re-think what sustainability really means. How can we realistically apply our ethics and belief systems to our own backyards? Because if we are to preserve this planet for future generations, each of us needs to do what we can, and we all have to start somewhere. We can’t wait for the Monsantos of the world to come around to our way of thinking. We each need to do our part to contribute to social consciousness. It is senseless to keep growing excess amounts of produce that gets thrown away when it could be given to people in need (and if your community doesn’t have a community kitchen of some sort, it’s time to start one). We need to look at how to reduce waste, conserve resources, reuse & recycle, learn about xeriscaping, native plants, and many more things I have yet to discover. We need to change our attitudes toward the need for perfection – perfect lawns, roses, hedges, and rows that require so many additives, resources, and energy to make them so perfect that they become unreal – like skinny models of the plant world. We have to address issues at multiple levels from multiple angles. We need to support one another, buy local, and know where our food comes from. And we need to teach our children.

Yes, it takes a village. It can start in a garden. God’s original plan.

Questions for you:

  • Is your garden limiting or expanding your world?
  • Is it a place of peace and tranquility or a hard labor camp?
  • Is it an extension of your self?
  • Does it reflect your ethics?
  • Does it make you stand in awe at the beauty and wonder of the world we live in?
  • Is it fun?
  • And what can you do to make it more of all those things that enrich – and liberate – your life?

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