8 years ago, I had a patch of gravel and a dream. I dreamed of growing as much food as possible, in the healthiest soil possible. Clearing the gravel by hand was tedious, but I have a habit of asking God to teach me things while I’m doing mundane tasks, to make the time feel more “productive”. I reasoned that since the patch of gravel was pretty small, I could clear it relatively quickly.
I reasoned wrong.
I barely made any progress that summer. Between my new baby, my 3 year old, and work related travel, I only managed to make the area more hospitable for weeds.
The following year, work kept us away from home the whole growing season. The year after was the same. When we finally had a spring at home, I tackled the project with renewed determination. I was studying permaculture, an approach to farming (and civilization in general) that was all about doing more with less by taking advantage of natural patterns. I had seen what was possible, and now I wanted to make it happen in our yard.
But we live on a small, heavily shaded lot. The more gravel I removed, the more I doubted anything would grow there after all. We had a raised bed of spindly salads greens, some raspberry bushes our neighbors had mowed over, and a potted basil plant that desperately wanted to be in Italy. I somehow made it my fault, and compared myself to friends that had thriving vegetable gardens. In our yard, nobody was thriving.
That summer I read a book by James Greene, a respected herbalist. He said growing herbs is one of the best ways to experience their therapeutic benefits. Even if you don’t make medicine per se, just seeing, smelling, and tasting them can greatly improve your health.
I was skeptical, but intrigued. I learned to identify and appreciate the plants that already grew in our yard, the superfoods and medicines we dismissed as weeds. We had family rock picking parties in the back yard. We talked about the different bugs we found, and celebrated every earthworm. They were our allies in repairing the dead soil. We needed all the help we could get.
The following summer we hauled in dirt to fill the shallow crater where the gravel had been. I began getting perennials from other gardeners to fill the void. Even though nothing would set fruit in all that shade, I wanted to grow things that served a purpose. So I got a clump of oregano from one friend, a clump of mint from another. The next year I got thyme, sage and lemon balm. I got tarragon, catnip, and bee balm. My husband put in a stone path days before our daughter was born.
The next year I found a tiny wormwood plant growing out of cracked pavement. I carefully dug it out and took it home. My father told me my grandmother used to grow it, and sometimes put it in her tea. I never met her, but I feel closer to her just smelling the feathery silver leaves.
Several days ago, just out of curiosity, I made a list of the edible and medicinal plants growing in our yard. I counted 35 different species. Unlike vegetables, we can harvest most of them throughout the season. They come back every year stronger and more beautiful. They never need weeding. They smell phenomenal, taste amazing, and spare us countless trips to the doctor. I was surprised, and for once, I felt proud of what I’d accomplished in our yard. But, most amazing of all, it felt good just to be there.
And that’s when I knew my little patch of gravel had healed me.
Just like I asked, God had worked on me while I picked through the dirt. Eight years ago I was an orphan. I was impatient and compared myself mercilessly to other people. Everyone else seemed to be doing morefasterbetter. Everything seemed to take too long.
Now I look back and see the family we’ve made, the woman I’ve become over the last eight years. I see my comparisons as the funhouse mirror distortions they were. I see how my impatience slowed me down. I see how, without knowing it, I was true to myself this whole time. I thought I wanted to grow food, but I needed to grow medicine.
Have you ever started a small project and later realized you were the one being worked on? I’d love to hear what you learned in the comments below.