Lessons from the Garden

A good day for me starts with about 30 minutes in my garden. I throw on my baggy threadbare gardening pants and a soft worn out t-shirt, grab a cup a coffee, and duck outside the backdoor. I’ve lived on this piece of land in the heart of Durham for a couple of decades now; and in that time, I’ve cultivated almost every square foot. There are vegetables in raised beds in the side yard, flowers in the front, and a shady woodland garden in the back.

I started this morning as I often do – simply wandering among the vegetables. That quickly turned to weeding, pulling everything in my reach each time I bent over. I re-staked a couple of tomato plants outgrowing their original supports. I took the clippers to the morning glory vines that persistently choke the herb plants. I wondered about what to plant next in the small bed, empty after I ripped out the bolting lettuce a few days ago. I admired the emerging deeper red on the ripening tomatoes and speculated on when to pick them to avoid the greedy grab of the birds and squirrels. When I stood back to take in the garden, I noticed that the coleus and flowers in the pots needed water. After drawing water from the rain barrel for those soon-to-be drooping plants, my morning gardening was finished.

Gardening is the way that I ground and center myself. Being a gardener has also made me better at my work beyond my yard. Here is a bit of what I have learned:


Being a keen observer is as important as being a careful planner.

If I had approached this morning’s time in the garden with a rigid to-do list, I would have missed the ripe-and-ready cucumber hanging amongst the tomatoes. I would not have prevented the tomato plants from toppling over in the next storm. And yet, I cannot be guided simply by my observations in the moment. If I don’t weed every time I’m in the garden, the little mimosa trees and morning glory vines will quickly rule every bed. If we want to eat kale and lettuce in the fall, I have to ensure that there is ready patch of soil when it’s time to plant.

This balance of planning and observation informs my best days as a meeting facilitator. I walk into the meeting with a detailed design yet keep a keen eye and ear on the energy and direction emerging in the group. In day-to-day work, staying on top of routine tasks like processing email leaves time for work that takes deep, focused thinking.

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Competition is reality, and yet it can be a happy dance.

Squirrels, chipmunks, rabbits, birds, and bugs are dependent on the flowers and fruit I cultivate on this urban plot of land. The population of bees and wasps has grown this year and so has our crop of tomatoes. We’ve already enjoyed multiple tomato sandwiches and salads. Yet, we are not the only ones who watch for the ripe tomatoes. The birds peck holes and the squirrels pluck the juicy fruit, eat half, and leave the rest as a telltale sign. I’ve decked the tomato plants in net and scare tape; our tomatoes do their last ripening on the kitchen counter. But beyond those efforts, I accept that other critters will benefit from our garden, too.

Third Space Studio is not the only consultancy effectively helping nonprofits being bolder and more impactful. We actively share our relationships and resources with our clients and other consultants. Sometimes that means that others benefit more than we do, but we have learned that we are all stronger in the long term when we freely share.

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Growing something worthwhile is a long series of careful experiments.

Those morning glory vines I clipped and yanked this morning? I planted them about a dozen years ago. Though the flowers were bright for a season, what a mistake it was to plant such a pernicious vine! The beds where the tomatoes and cucumbers flourish are filled with many layers of compost and other soil amendments (cow manure is the best). If I don’t water the plants in pots every two to three rainless days, the plants will wilt and die.

There is a lot of uncertainty in a garden, especially these days, and there is a lot of uncertainty in the world of nonprofits and our efforts to make our communities better. My garden has taught me to embrace my role as experimenter rather than to assume that I know what will actually work. I’m going to make mistakes; some will have long-term implications, and some will be happy surprises. My job is to keep showing up and to keep trying.

Whether we realize it, there are often many rich lessons from other areas of our lives that we carry with us into our work. What do you draw from, and where do you find yourself inspired? I encourage you to pay attention to what the world around you has to teach as you move through this mid-summer month. And enjoy a ripe, juicy tomato or two while you’re at it.

— Meredith