A few years ago, the first full summer we lived in Sherbrooke, my husband and I built a wooden planter out of salvaged wood, attached it to an old wagon, planted it with tomatoes and called it “un jardin adoptif.” We solicited volunteers from around our neighbourhood and toured it between different front yards over the summer. At every stop, the people who lived there took care of the watering. We produced a pretty healthy crop of tomatoes in this way (more than we would have at home, where we were lacking sun), but more importantly, we talked to our neighbours. We got to know people we would not otherwise have met, learned about their gardens, heard their perspective on the neighbourhood, and sometimes even received produce from their gardens in return. In fact, the garden functioned much like the social media platform through which we had solicited volunteers: it brought us into contact with other people and allowed us to interact with them. It mediated our neighbourly relations, multiplying our connections and even deepening some of them, ever so slightly.
So when I say that gardens are social media, I mean it quite literally. On the most general definition, a medium is what comes between two entities. But whatever its purpose—to bind pigment in paint, facilitate interpersonal communication or enable the trade of goods and services—a medium always has the secondary effect of changing the relationship between the two entities. This is what Marshall McLuhan meant when he said “the medium is the message”: the things we put between us, change how we see and experience the world. In the context of communication, different media enable different kinds of interaction, and those interactions change the way people relate to one another more generally. Cell phones enable people to be in contact with one another more of the time, which has changed the way some people work, and the way we make plans (or don’t) with one another. Social media platforms like Facebook allow us to contact, connect with and even care (in a certain limited way) for people that live far away from us or with whom we would otherwise lost touch, but they can also generate feelings of jealousy and isolation.
So while it might be more usual to think of gardens in utilitarian or individualistic terms–as sources of food, creative projects or sites of personal respite and restoration–they are also media of contact, connection and care. When we put them between people, or between people and place, they enable unique forms of interaction and exchange.
For example, as I described above, gardens provide an easy way to start a conversation with someone you don’t know. Like the weather (and in fact, closely tied to it), gardens produce common experiences that are easy, even pleasurable to discuss with strangers. “Can you believe how cold it was las night–did you lose anything?” Or, “your sweet peas are doing so well!” “Have you got aphids this year?” And so on. Many a neighbourly relationship has started from such beginnings.
Gardens also provide an excellent impetus for sharing–for example, when you start too many seeds, or end up with too much of a particular crop, or when you want to reduce the size of a perennial plant (and so offer divisions to a fellow gardener). In fact, gardening used to rely much more on sharing than it does today. When the commercial horticultural industry first emerged in the nineteenth century, seed companies had to invest an enormous amount in marketing and advertising in order to convince people to buy their seeds rather than save and trade them.
A garden can also help us to become attached to a place and enlarge our social relations to include the non-human beings that live there. Gardening or visiting a garden brings us into contact with the birds, insects and animals that also make use of the plants and soil. Over time, these relations may please, surprise, fascinate or frustrate us, but they will always connect us to something larger than our individual human lives.
Finally, if you grow edible plants, gardening will change your relationship with food, perhaps raising your standards for freshness, increasing the esteem you hold for farmers, and changing how you shop.
Socially speaking, the relations mediated by gardens might sound rather minor. These are small pleasures we are talking about, perhaps quite superficial friendships. But that is in part my point. One of the important things about gardens as media, is that the interactions they facilitate are low risk. A conversation about a garden is easy to initiate–so easy, it can happen with a stranger, even on a bad day when you don’t feel particularly confident. And while low risk often corresponds with a relatively superficial gain (in terms of the relationship that results), the ability to initiate conversations and share things with those not close to us are skills we are in danger of losing in these days of political polarization and social media echo chambers. Further, as the spread of Covid-19 leads us to enter a potentially long experiment with how much we can accomplish as a society while limited to digital communication, and as fear begins to shadow our passage through public spaces, we may find that we need the social crutches that gardens provide more than ever.
Whats more, I am a firm believer in the idea that when it comes to the future, and particularly at moments when societies are in crisis, we don’t know what will make a difference. We don’t know what kind of profound changes may begin with small gestures, or what will get us through the challenges to come. A child has been sticking construction-paper hearts to a window in the apartment directly across from mine: a broadcast of hand-cut, scribbly love that grows a little more each day. It might be that I learn more about compassion from this unknown child than from my new meditation practice. In fact, I think this is the only way to be truly hopeful when everything is changing and so little is in our control: to believe that maybe a small gesture will make a difference.
So if this idea that gardens are social media sounds kind of small, that is the point. A garden should be less something we aspire to or wish for and more something we figure out because it is necessary. As a starting point, maybe, it should be like a cell phone–we may not all have the most up-to-date versions or use all of the features with ease, but most people have one and use it every day. The work of gardening doesn’t have to be super complicated, and while it can be hard work, the results need not always be beautiful (though it is deeply satisfying to make them so!). What is important is to do it regularly and benefit from the forms of social contact and connection that it enables.
Particularly during a pandemic, when many people are working from home, gardening can happen during the in-between moments of the day–much like, or perhaps instead of, the social media scrolling we do to relieve boredom and isolation. Is it possible that we might, in a similarly habit-forming way, develop more widespread practices, not just of connection, but also of care? Because the other thing about gardening is, the more you do it, the more you want to do it, and also, the more you see and experience of the world around you: not just your seeds sprouting, but also your neighbour’s bulbs, and the fiddleheads unfurling in the forest. You’ll notice a tree in the park that needs watering, weeds that are choking out wildflowers, berries that are ripe etc. You might even start to see things that aren’t there–a shared herb garden in this sunny corner of the park for example, or some shade-tolerant berry bushes in place of these ornamental species. And then, particularly if you start talking to others about what you see, you might find that there is no going back.