Entertaining guests yesterday I had the question and answer exchange every gardener has:
Question: “What’s your secret for growing such a beautiful garden?”
Answer: “Miracle Grow.”
This of course is completely inaccurate. The real answer takes more time than a cocktail conversation allows.The person asking knows the answer as much as I do. Is Miracle Grow a good gardening hack? You bet. Does it accurately reflect what gets you to a beautiful garden. Not at all. But in the Q & A session at a party small talk should be kept small. Follow-up questions indicate a real commitment to learning more than “use liquid fertilizer” and those who dive deeper are rewarded with deeper answers. Which begins with “You grind away for years having success and epic failures, incremental improvements and adjustments along the way. You learn what works and keep doing that, learn what doesn’t and change how you do that.” And if they want more then the details come along. Gardening is a long climb towards a level of mastery that I’ll never reach. But I’m better for having made the climb than someone who hasn’t. At gardening anyway.
Robert Greene writes brilliantly of mastery in his book of the same name. He describes the phase of developing skills that move you to mastery as the Ideal Apprenticeship. I know with conviction that I’m no master gardener; I’m somewhere in the next phase after apprenticeship, which Greene calls Creative-Active. With recreational gardening I’m not sure there’s a mastery stage in my future. I don’t aspire to be a horticulturist or botanist or landscape architect. Being a knowledgeable enthusiast is enough for me with gardening.
And what of other interests? Career and family, of course, and the other pursuits of history, travel, writing and the like? Does being a generalist dilute each pursuit? No question. Does it mean pursuing more than one interest isn’t beneficial? That depends on what you think your best life should be. Personally I’ll take Jack-of-all-trades, thank you. But that doesn’t mean you can’t strive to be your best in each of those “trades”.
We live in a time and place where pursuing fancies like an ornamental garden or casually researching the best London pub crawl route for an October visit while poolside on an iPhone (guilty) are available options. I’m well aware that the settler who first cleared and farmed the land I’m on never debated whether to move the dahlias from one side of the garden to the other to give the variegated impatiens room to grow. Mastery for that settler meant nurturing crops to a successful harvest, hunting or fishing for that night’s dinner, and generally staying alive in an unforgiving environment. Mastery in recreational gardening isn’t a life or death matter for me. It’s like making your bed in the morning; It’s not going to change the world in any meaningful way, plenty of people get along just fine not doing it, but it elevates my day a notch higher for having done it well. And isn’t that enough?