Lessons in Embracing Absurdity from the Garden

It’s a bright albeit cool morning in early May, the sun warm on one’s neck but goosebumps still dappling skin in the breeze. A cardinal trills its jubilant exaltations from a nearby arborvitae. The air smells faintly of magnolia blooms and fresh-cut grass. Amidst all this beauty here I am, wielding a bottle of Tabasco sauce with a maniacal fervor, dousing a flower bed with the spicy substance.

About twenty minutes prior, I had happened upon my freshly planted sunflower bed, desecrated by a squirrel. I had constructed a new bed, tilled and amended the soil with the finest aged manure the local hardware store had to offer, and painstakingly planted dozens of sunflower seeds.

All this to be undone in minutes by a gluttonous squirrel, who systematically unearthed each seed like a deranged Easter egg hunt, and left the cracked shells behind clearly to mock me.

The beauty of molasses is that it’s the de facto cliché for slowness for a reason. The stuff does not want to go anywhere in a hurry.

Years prior, I went to admire my garden beds only to find the broccoli decapitated by a woodchuck. Hollering at the beast did nothing, and poking him with a rather substantial stick only elicited a side-eyed glance. Later, after some dubious advice from an online gardening forum, I was kneeling by our back fence, pouring molasses down the woodchuck’s hole because, well, a stranger on the internet told me that woodchucks don’t like being sticky.  The beauty of molasses is that it’s the de facto cliché for slowness for a reason. The stuff does not want to go anywhere in a hurry. With this being said, it takes enough time to pour a bottle of molasses down a woodchuck hole for a person to take a mental step back and appreciate the absurdity of the moment.

That’s what gardening is about, truly, a series of lessons in embracing the absurd. Sure, there’s the heavy influence of botany, a smattering of chemistry, a foundation in ecology, and some rudimentary meteorology, but let’s be real, the act of gardening is just as much mysticism as it is science. I am a compulsive over-planner by nature, the type to grab sunscreen, an umbrella, and an extra pair of socks if I’m leaving the house for a few hours. I make to-do lists and keep calendars and spreadsheets to the point of (I’ll admit it) neuroticism. Heck, I decide what I’m going to order from a restaurant before we even arrive there.

I struggle to embrace chaos, to lean into absurdity.

My summer garden plans start taking shape around January each year, when I’m scraping ice off my windshield in the frigid predawn and exiting the parking ramp at work well after the sunset’s pastels succumb to the dusk. I sketch out meticulous boxes on graph paper to represent tomatoes, zucchini, some cucumbers, and nasturtium. I immerse myself in articles on companion planting, soil health, and pest control. The planning reaches a fever pitch around mid-February as the seed catalogs clog our frozen mailbox daily, glossy photos of perfect tomatoes and lush foliage taunting me. I order seeds and I raise them in the pink glow of a grow lamp in our linen closet from March through May. I delicately harden off my seedlings, offering them a bit more exposure to the elements each day, like a tentative child poking a toe into a cold lake. All these endless hours spent researching, planning, and fastidiously tending to the garden can be upended in mere moments courtesy of furry, feathered, and winged pests, unexpected late-season freezes, gale-force winds, and innumerable other calamities.

Now, perhaps a rational person would give up at this point, do a cost-benefit analysis and succumb to nature’s ambivalence.

Surely, that’s what the planner in me wants. Still, the anticipation of biting into a perfectly ripe tomato, warm from the sun, and with the sublime balance of acid and sweet pushes me to throw away all my sensibilities. Heck, I’ll walk on my hands and quack like a duck if it means I’ll have a bumper crop of peas, picking the pods from their tendrils on a June morning, bees buzzing by fat and drowsy with pollen, the dewy grass clinging to my bare feet. I might feel ridiculous while I’m frantically rounding up all the spare sheets in the house to tuck the tender seedlings into bed before a frost warning, but those seedlings will likely grow up and thank me with cucumbers to pickle, peppers to roast, and carrots so flavorful I’ll eat them straight from the garden with a little dirt still clinging to them. If we never deviate from our comfort zone, we miss out on an awful lot of remarkable experiences. None of us should have to settle for a life of flavorless grocery store tomatoes and iceberg lettuce.

Embracing the absurd transcends the garden, and even a planner like me will admit its importance. The best-devised plans can always go awry, and it’s important for us to be flexible (I’ll replant those sunflower seeds), collaborate with others (Woodchucks hate being sticky, you say? Well, it’s worth a shot), and improvise when needed (perhaps setting the little varmint’s tongue on fire with Tabasco will teach him). If anything, I’m glad my garden has taught me to become more comfortable with the unknown, the unplannable, and the absurd.

What lessons has your garden taught you?


Kate Gargo
Kate Gargo
Kate Gargo has a BA in English - Creative Writing and Philosophy from the University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire. She is currently a Sales Manager, using her love of stories and narrative to inspire her sales team and to empower them to be successful. In her free time, Kate is an avid gardener, a novice sourdough baker, a chronic houseplant collector, a voracious reader, a clumsy hiker, and an incessant coffee consumer. She currently lives in a 125+-year-old Victorian fixer-upper with her husband and daughter in the Midwest.

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  1. Kate, welcome to theBC360 family. Congratulations on having your first article published. My wife and I have not done gardening in quite a number of years. We always saw the evolution of a tiny frail tomato plant into this sweet fruity smelling vine with luscious tomatoes hanging majestically as a new life that was created and nurtured into adulthood just as we are.

  2. Kate — Welcome to BC360! Judging by this piece, you will have us clamoring for more.

    That said, I have to admit that when I saw your article on gardening, I sighed “Hmmm.” You see, I live in a NYC co-op with minimal sun exposure and no roof-top gardening allowed. Plants come into our house as a place to die. We don’t think of it as Hospice, but they do. We once found a yellow sticky on our hallway door – we suspect it was from a Ficus that just uprooted itself and disappeared – that read “Fellow plants! Run for your life!”

    My experience with gardening is limited to asking my in-laws “What’s wrong with the beans and potatoes at Wegman’s?” And “What is it about weeding and mulching that you love?”

    But it’s not literally about gardening then, is it?

    A beautiful piece.

  3. Welcome to the BizCatalyst family, Kate – I love this piece! You paint such a vivid picture, and I laughed a few times as I can relate. And your points hit home for sure. It is always good to be flexible and step outside our comfort zone. It enables us to plant a variety of seeds we may not have considered. And even if it renders something bitter or doesn’t grow to maximum height, there’s still beauty in that we took the chance.

    I think the time during this pandemic is teaching many of us a new meaning of adaptability. I know it is that way for me.

    As for the molasses and the Tobasco sauce, oh my gosh. So funny! Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us.

  4. Oh Kate! You are an absolutely delightful writer! I love how you started the piece with a rich description and then hit us with the unexpected to illustrate the absurd. It was perfect! I’m so looking forward to reading more of your work and delighted you’ve joined this special Biz Cat community!

  5. Welcome, Kate! Gardening in Montana has been quite a challenge, and I have great respect and admiration for your persistence in planting and nurturing yours. I’ve come to the conclusion that starting seedlings will no longer be a spring ritual for this household. We have a greenhouse window attached to a shed, and most years I try getting seeds started there – but almost always neglect watering them. You’re right, though, my garden has taught be great lessons about adaptability, patience, and disappointment!

    • Thank you Sarah! Starting seedlings is definitely a tough gig, I often wonder if it’s worth the fuss. I hope the rest of this spring treats you well up in Montana!

  6. Oh, I appreciate this essay very much, Kate! I’m not a gardener. I do my best to stay on top of digging out the dandelions, but even that has only limited success. I definitely used to be quite rigid about my outer life, my space couldn’t be too messy, and people definitely had to schedule with me way in advance. I did not understand spontaneity. With children I had to learn to adapt, flow, create plan B, plan C, plan “Wish List.” . I eventually freed myself (mostly) from the what I knew I could never control-including the squirrels who figured out new ways to get to the bird feeders (even though I had that upside down metal cone thing underneath-the squirrels still leaped from the roof of the house or branches of the trees to get to that food source. I now know that I can choose how I respond to life rather than react (and I can catch my reactions and call them out) I can shift to the pause or neutral before reacting. I notice that creative expression often flows in the nuanced moments, the unexpected, the unanticipated, and the deeper place of calm I discovered in the inside of my heart and soul. Life on the outside will be ever-changing and the witness consciousness, the fly on the wall will forever be quietly paying attention, noticing, and adapting.

    Welcome to BizCatalyst360!!

    • I love this Laura! I’m a fairly new mom, but I have definitely found the lessons in adaptability apply to parenting in a BIG way. How we react to any situation/change is so crucial, and the idea of responding vs. reacting makes a world of difference.