Telling Garden Stories

By Ryan Koch

Response to “Institutionalizing Affection” by Leah Bayens

Editor’s note: Ryan is the director of Seedleaf, a community gardening non-profit in Lexington, Kentucky.

I have been growing gardens in small city lots over the past nine years, learning loads along the way. The learning never stops, though some days I wish it would. This is not the work for which I trained. In fact, I had a very difficult time discovering the work for which I trained. I was glad to finish college, approximately on time, but I did not come out with much of a plan to make a living, or to build or nurture anything. I vaguely recall having a great list of unanswerable questions in my imagination, and I took some pride in this.

It is not accurate to say that I found the work I currently do. And it is too bold to say that I made it. This work found me. Seedleaf started in 2007 as a non-profit organization devoted to addressing food insecurity issues in Lexington, Kentucky, through community gardening. I serve as a part-time garden coordinator, part-time youth development facilitator, and part-time non-profit administrator. This all adds up to meaningful work, a sense of purpose. I consistently feel alive in these roles, engaged with this world. And I long to share the work, to give others a chance to join in somehow. So many of my neighbors are knowledgeable about gardening and very much willing to help. Many of them are also unemployed, or underemployed, and could use side work. I still cannot figure out how to broaden our staff or to create the work for others that brings me so much joy. There is a loneliness and a longing in the fact that some of the sweetest parts of my work week remain unshared, and maybe unsharable.

But I am invited to share sometimes. Last week, it was the entire fourth grade at a local elementary school. On a beautiful spring morning, eighty young scholars filed into the windowless gym and sat down in rows to hear me talk about my work. When I paused for questions, a fellow in the front row, obviously inspired, threw his hand into the air and asked, “Are we going outside?”

A Course of Study in Homecoming

A few times each semester I am asked to visit a college classroom and talk about the local food movement or about my “career path.” When the invitation is made, usually by phone, I wince at first. My mind scrambles for an excuse. Then I agree to the invitation. I catch myself hoping that these twenty-year-old people are not like I was at that age. I lacked purpose and focus. I had received much—so much—but had no idea how to contribute to our world.

One of the messages I bear to these young people of some privilege is that, It gets better. Life gets better. It all gets so much better the moment you stop trying to fix it all and accept it deeply just as it is.

I want to tell them: It is okay to care for a space and to watch it become a place just because you cared. It is okay to lose your resume and to do a thing for ten years without knowing quite what it will accomplish.

That’s what I would like to tell all the undergrads. Mostly I just tell garden stories.

Sometimes I tell the story of how one Wendell Berry poem changed my life. This did not happen immediately, but it happened. On a fall day at a small liberal arts college on the Pacific Coast, my Christian Doctrine professor (I cannot recall his name) preempted his own lecture (I cannot recall the topic) to read “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front.” As he read the last line, “Practice resurrection,” I knew that in some small way my mind had been altered. My imagination had been seeded with some cover crop that would germinate at the right time, in the right season. For all the things I forgot in college, this moment, this voice, found me and would remain.

Better than a lecture in a classroom, however, is a chance for college students to join me in a garden for two hours, caring for marginal land in an economically distressed part of town. Our 15 free you-pick gardens occur in neighborhoods that have been hidden over the years, tucked away and easily ignored by many area residents. Seedleaf facilitates volunteer opportunities that help our organization get a lot of garden work accomplished in a short amount of time. Volunteers get a chance to cross cultural boundaries, and field test their own biases, many of which are hidden until they face a disequilibrating situation. Our volunteers interact with nature and learn how to cooperate with natural processes in small-scale food production. They learn how to weed a row of carrots and how satisfying it is to complete a tangible task. All of these lessons and opportunities seem tragically unique for the American undergraduate experience. A course of study devoted to Homecoming, and Home Economics, would be an important corrective.

I desperately wish there had been such a place as the Berry Farming and Ecological Agrarianism Program at St. Catharine College for any earnest young person needing to learn how and why they should care for a piece of land, or why it is important to cultivate a place and to belong there. I know I was longing for a homecoming twenty years ago. That has not gone away. Berry’s words found me and challenged me. And I learned, in spite of myself, that laughter is immeasurable, as Berry writes in “Manifesto.” This work found me. I feel a great sense of gratitude when I look at my planner, and I am able to answer that young voice in my memory, Yes: we are going outside.

Editor: Beth Connors-Manke

Copyediting by Emily Cottingham

Featured Image: “One Potato, Two Potato” by Brian Connors Manke