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A Tomato for Your Anxiety

by Jenn Kruczynski about a year ago in happiness
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The Happiness Project

My sanctuary

I wiped another bead of sweat off my head, put down a pair of scissors and sank into the plush grass to admire my hard work. After a week of rain and a now warm late spring sun, the abundance of growth is staggering. I had just finished assembling a trellis, for a soon to be wall of tomatoes, when I decided to take some time for reflection. The trellis spans the back of my two newly installed garden beds. I’ve been thinking about garden fresh tomatoes since late fall. Nothing compares to sinking your teeth into produce you grew in your own backyard.

2020 was a year of adaptation. There is no word I can think of more suited to it. It was a year which required substantial changes to our interaction with the world around us. It was a year of changing work habits. It was a year of changes to social activities, to dining, health care, the list could go on and on. We had to learn to adapt to these new circumstances, for safety, for survival. This was also a year I found joy, I found myself. You know how sometimes you let out this massive sigh, seemingly out of nowhere, a breath you hadn’t even realized you’d been holding in? That is what this year did for me. How did I find my happiness in a pandemic? That is my story, a journey that involves a global health crisis, growing your own food and a pair of scissors.

I’ve gardened before. Every spring, I found myself spending more money than I care to admit, at a big box store, my cart overflowing with soil and plant starts. I gardened out of habit because it was something that you did. I was easily fascinated by the sprouting of flowers on a pepper plant or the curling vines of a cucumber. I loved planting the space out, watching it come to life. I loved picking a vegetable or fruit and eating it right off the vine. I loved stepping out of my door and harvesting fresh herbs for my dinner. I loved all of that, but summer gets hot and that can wipe you out. The heat paired with lugging a hose or watering can back and forth every couple of days inevitably would wear me down. I’d forget for a day and promise myself I’d get to it tomorrow, but then it didn’t matter if I waited until the next day. I was busy, I was in a movie theater or walking in the woods or soaking in a cool body of water somewhere and completely disinterested in a farmer’s tan. Every summer, by August, my garden would have transformed into this wild, dry mass of overgrown plants producing little to harvest. It would stay that way until I eventually ripped it out on a cool fall afternoon. I would lament and say I would do better next year. Wash. Rinse. Repeat.

Maybe you can relate. Maybe you have been there before with gardening or another hobby. Maybe you are saying get off your lazy butt, what did that garden ever do to you? Maybe you are just wondering how this story can be about finding happiness. That is the tricky thing about happiness though, isn’t it? It doesn’t always bask in plain sight. I have found that happiness is often buried at the bottom. It’s buried beyond pain and through trauma, because that’s the only way most of us can see it. I’ll explain how I found mine, I promise.

Flash forward to Winter/Spring 2019-2020. I stumbled across a video that mentioned this term, permaculture. If you don’t know what that is, don’t worry, neither did I. It was a rather short video, 5-10 minutes. This woman in another country was growing upwards of 900 pounds of produce per year on less than 10th of an acre. There was a pergola of grapes. There were fruit trees set to bloom at different times of year. There were cathedrals of tomatoes, guarded by moats of squashes and herbs. They even kept quail for fresh eggs. All manner of things.

Maybe it was my competitive side, maybe it was sheer unadulterated envy, whatever the reason, it piqued my interest. I rent a house on a little bit more than 1/10th an acre and I was like well if she can do this, why can’t I? This started me on a journey of self-discovery I can never begin to thank this stranger enough for.

I researched that term and learned that it is a whole movement; to overly simplify, it centers around creating a permanent solution to the environmental impacts of big agricultural, by working with nature rather than against it. Over the coming weeks, I fell into a rabbit hole of reading and watching anything I could get my hands on about these practices. Why is this important? Why haven’t I heard this term before? Why isn’t everyone screaming about the impacts these massive agriculture operations are having on our environment? We are a literally creating deserts, creating significant climate change with these practices, how does no one know about this? Spoiler: People do know and are screaming about these issues, I just hadn't been tuned in to listen.

I became frantic. It is hard not to see a gap or a problem with the world and not to want to dive headlong in an solve it yourself. I just felt this overwhelming urge to make all of these drastic life changes. I researched what it would take for me to raise my own eggs, spoiler, I can’t on this property due to zoning regulations. I researched composting, water catchment, how to get involved with my community. I researched myself into a frenzy. Unfortunately, a global climate crisis is not one of those things that one person can tackle on their own. I looked at all my research, I paused, and thought, what can I do right now? I can only manage what is in my control. I realized that it was more important for me to do what I could very well, than it was to make myself sick trying to change a bunch of things that are outside of my control.

I decided I would start simple, with a garden. I would grow my own produce. I would tackle the problem areas I had in the past. I would leave my space healthier than it was when I moved in. This would take a lot of effort on my part. Somewhere between these endless reams of YouTube videos, documentaries and reading, I’d ignited a spark in myself and I was ready to roll up my sleeves to give whatever it would take.

The first step, if we exclude education, was to design my space. In early spring 2020, just as the pandemic hit, I was planning out my first steps towards permaculture. I took the perfectly mulched but sparsely planted area of the existing patio and filled it with perennial herbs. The difference this time was that I didn’t just pick out what I thought was cute or smelled nice. I applied permaculture principles to make an educated decision. I observed how the sun hit the beds at certain times of the day. I observed how water fell on the beds. I learned what type of soil I was working with and what plants could thrive in those spaces. I researched what the plants would look like at certain times of year because what’s the purpose of landscaping if not to create a beautiful space? Then, I measured and mapped out the space. I cut out little representations of each plant and moved them over a carefully sketched replica of the beds.

I was a wholly different person that entire growing season. I felt like a switch inside of me had been flipped. Suddenly, I felt purpose rushing into my life again. I moved heavy containers of plants all over the property until I found their perfect home. I reclaimed a whole section of the yard, which had been neglected for several years. I ripped out non-native and invasive species and replaced them with native perennials. I lugged a hose and watering cans all over the place on the hottest days of the year. I mulched. I weeded, until my back screamed. I was more exhausted and at the same time, more fulfilled than I ever felt. Sitting at my picnic table, after a long day of work, I watched new birds and critters enjoying a drink at the fountain I created. I sat there for hours basking in the rays of my hard work and watching things thrive.

We spent a whole year thinking, well in a couple of months, things will open back up. We’ll get back to life as we knew it. Before I knew it though, another growing season had come and gone, and we were still in quarantine. It was autumn and I was pulling tape and staples out of cardboard to act as a weed barrier for my two new no dig beds. I cut back the grass, low as it could go. I used scissors to cut and shape the cardboard meticulously, remembering to extend 10 inches outside the edges of those new beds. I soaked the cardboard with water. I assembled the two beds. I plonked them down on top of the cardboard, with space to move in between both. Then I committed to layering yard waste, coco coir, composted manure and eventually raised bed soil until I finally soaked it all again. Voila, I had two new spaces to plant in the following season.

I grabbed the scissors to cut open the garlic bulbs which has just arrived. As I was sitting there, planning where each type of garlic would go, I realized this was it. This was the last thing I’d be planting in 2020. Everything had been mulched, pruned and / or put away. Planting garlic would be the last thing I’d do that season for the garden. The thought began to overwhelm me. Keeping myself busy with the garden hadn’t just been about finding a bigger purpose, it had been a distraction. It has distracted me from quarantine, from remote work, from a country of unrest, from a presidential election. I’d spent the year, masking anxiety with busy work. What was I going to do now?

It stifled me for a little while, the thought that I couldn’t be wrist deep in soil. The thought that I couldn’t be harvesting and preserving. I would wake up in the middle of the night, wondering how I’d survive several more months in quarantine, in my house day in and day out, without that escape. I do suffer from an anxiety disorder, I meet with a therapist regularly, and we’d both talked about how much positive change gardening and education had brought back to my life. I was worried that I wouldn’t be the same new and improved me with

Then I reminded myself, that you can always be feeding your dream. You can always be servicing your dream, even if it’s not always in the way that you think. How could I do that? How could I fulfill my dream of an abundant garden in the middle of a New England winter?

I went back to the drawing boards, literally and figuratively. I took an online gardening course. I created full page renderings of my garden spaces and laminated them so I could use dry erase markers to plan everything out. I even planned where I could plug in ornamental plants to further beautify the spaces. I let my creativity run wild, planning plant selections to climb trellises and irrigation paths that could carry water to exactly where it needed to be. When I was done that, I even started to envision what the space at my next house, at my forever home would look like.

That whole winter, I dreamed of ways I could make a beautiful, engaging space to benefit wildlife, to feed my family and to reduce our negative environmental impact. Before I knew it, I was starting my seeds inside. I was cutting into bags of soil. I was up-potting seedlings. Then, I was hardening those starts off, getting them used to the outside little by little, so as not to shock them when I transplanted them out. It was hard work. It seemed impossible to spend a winter indoors, without being able to socialize or go anywhere after 8 months of confinement. I thought I would actually melt into my couch. I thought I’d never recover. There were times when I felt like my anxiety and depression would cave in on me and swallow me whole. The answer was not to wait for the happiness to come back. The happiness I found was doing something in service of what I wanted for myself. Doing something in service of my dreams brought life back to me.

It’s now June. My spring and summer gardens are fully planted out. I am secreted away, down in the middle of the gardens writing this. I am admiring the bees and birds enjoying the bowls of water. I am staring at a peach tree as its fruits continue to swell. It seems every day I see something new that’s sprouted or even needs to be cut back. It will be mere weeks until I’m mixing up a batch of bruschetta with fresh tomatoes and herbs. Sitting here, amidst all of this green, my eyes well with tears of joy. We survived a long, brutal and uncertain year. I found a passion that grows bigger in my heart every day. I did this. I planned it. I dreamed it. I grew it. I feel pride in a way I’ve never known before. I ache to share this with anyone who will listen. I ache to learn what stirs others in the same way.

I do not yet have my dream house. I do not yet have a learning center to teach people about gardening. I do not yet have the community gardens, to share fresh produce with those who are food insecure. I do not yet have chickens or goats or cows. I have a rented space. I have a small backyard garden. I have drawings of my current gardens. I also have drawings of my future house and gardens.

I once heard someone say, if you can fully visualize how your dream can be actualized, you probably are not dreaming big enough. I’m starting to understand that happiness will find a way. Happiness persists in absence of material, in absence of a fully completed checklist, happiness persists not in spite of turmoil but because of it. I do not need to fully achieve my dreams to bask in their light. I need only to work towards them. I needed only to take that first step, to cut out that first drawing, to string that first homemade trellis. I needed only to believe that I could achieve the dream in order to feel fulfilled by it.


About the author

Jenn Kruczynski

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