There’s Joy in Hard Work

Photo by Gayla Trail  All Rights Reserved

I listened to this essay about the importance of physical labor by urban gardener Mary Seton Corboy yesterday morning on the This I Believe program and thought it was so brilliant I had to share.

Listening to her talk about digging ditches made me want to run outside and dig something… except that it is winter here and the ground is frozen. Day-to-day physical activity is something I miss sorely during the winter months. During the warm months there are average labors like planting seedlings, turning the compost pile, hauling buckets of water to the container plants out on the roof or getting on my bike to go anywhere I want. But in the winter exercise seems forced. I have to make a point to “get outside” on a long hike in the cold, or drag my reluctant ass to the gym where I then use a series of strange machines in a loud, obnoxious environment to achieve what comes so easy in the garden. I also find physical labor, especially in the garden, offers a chance to blow off steam or problem solve as my body goes through the motions of a task at hand. My body takes over on its own in a way that opens up space for my brain to go through its own motions and work through issues from a different perspective. Meditation in motion. The idea that I would be or should be striving to reach a point in my life where I can delegate those tasks to someone else… forget it! I would lose out on one of the places I find joy as a gardener. As a human being.

As a writer and speaker I am sometimes pressured to speak about gardening as easy work. In a way this is true. I try to put a positive and approachable spin on things because I whole-heartedly believe that gardening is something all of us can do. Gardening is for everyone. No one should be intimidated out of giving it a shot. But that’s not to say that it is easy. Sometimes it is. Sometimes it is as easy as breathing. Unfortunately, what comes easy to one person can be utter hardship to another. Factors like personal strengths and weaknesses along with climate, conditions, location, resources, etc can dictate all sorts of subtle and not-so-subtle differences from one gardener to the next. Sometimes it is brutally hard. But that doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy it.

I find real joy in hard work and labor. Sometimes I hate it and want to kick at the ground screaming. Never mind the things I can’t control: the groundhog that ate every bean and broccoli seedling; the summer a fluke weather pattern brought a plague of aphids in on the wind. Aphids literally rained down from the sky! Imagine how much hand squishing it took to get that under control.

Sometimes I love it and hate it all at once. I might complain about lifting bags of soil up five flights of stairs and hauling endless buckets of sloshing water through the apartment to the containers out on the roof, but all of that only serves to instill a heightened sense of pride in everything that comes out at the other end of the work: homegrown food and beautiful outdoor spaces to relax in. There are some good stories in there too. I often wonder if I would feel as much pride if the seeds just grew on their own with no help from me at all. Would I treasure each tomato in the way I do? Would I demand to be photographed with every zucchini plucked from the plant? Probably not.

So on top of the body, mind and spirit benefits that come from the hard work we do in the garden there is also the joy, pride, and sense of accomplishment that comes from something that is not handed over on a plate. The sense of something meaningful that is hard won. The taste of small victories.

Gayla Trail
Gayla is a writer, photographer, and former graphic designer with a background in the Fine Arts, cultural criticism, and ecology. She is the author, photographer, and designer of best-selling books on gardening, cooking, and preserving.

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17 thoughts on “There’s Joy in Hard Work

  1. The hard work that comes with gardening IS much more satisfying than working out at a gym… I never understood the appeal of peddaling or running and not actually getting anywhere.

  2. I don’t think there is anything better in the world than the hard work that is required to be a gardener. People who have never gardened before and who come over to my house often ask how long I spend on it each day, and when I tell them I try to spend 20 minutes out there everyday, they are amazed…and I, too, am amazed that people have yards or gardens that they have no personal connection to. Nothing beats moving hundreds of pounds of mulch, discovering the shallots that have just crept out of the ground, building up new beds, and then sitting back on the porch at the end of it all, tired, sore, sweaty, but very accomplished. Spring will come soon!!! ;)

  3. Your essay & Ms. Corboy’s are brilliant & express for me the, truth, the heart & the joy of gardening. About 22 years ago, on a long Easter weekend, I dug up my parent’s sod to create an azalea bed — and I haven’t stopped digging yet. Well, in a sense I have because I now have a balcony garden. So instead of digging, I get my physical and emotional workout by mixing soil and compost and lifting and rearranging pots. I do stair-climbing: up and down two flights of stairs to the storage locker where I keep soil, plant food and pots, and up and down a ladder so I can tend to my hanging baskets.

    Yes! to that love-hate aspect of gardening. I’ve cried many tears over the plants I’ve lost. But I will never give up this hard, rewarding work that nurtures me and relationships of all kinds.

  4. Mary Seton Corboy’s farm, Greensgrow, is a beautifully integrated member of its neighborhood here in Philadelphia, and a hub for other local farmers selling their produce. I never met her during my visits last summer, but listening to her describe her passion for the work really illuminates the farm, and reveals its soul.

    I’ll be container gardening in a concrete backyard this summer, but I agree with Mary — I love digging ditches!

  5. I remember how shocked I was when I moved up north to Wisconsin for three years and the first time I went outside and shoved my shovel against the dirt and realized that when there was snow on the ground, the ice went ALL THE WAY DOWN. Man, that was startling. It never occurred to me that the ice would actually freeze down in the ground. Isn’t dirt a great insulator? And yet, as I shoved and cursed and snarled, my shovel dented, I learned impatience. And then I learned to use grow lights indoors. You really can get a good tomato indoors with grow lights. Because their grow season sucks. Therefor I widened it with modern technology.

  6. Who hasn’t gone out to the garden only to lift their head “a little while later” only to be surprised it is getting dark!?
    Yep, it is physical work all right but to me it is so enjoyable that I only notice the next day.

  7. I live in Northern California and I started planning my garden a couple weeks ago only to discover that I’m already behind in planting my seeds!
    So I spent Saturday starting the seed garden and also cleaning out my herb garden on the East side of the house. It felt wonderful to stretch my legs and back again and talk about “meditation in motion…” Who needs a therapist?!
    And now its pissing rain again. So I only have that Saturday morning memory to hold me through the next month or so.

  8. Gardening is work, but it is rewarding work. There is always a finished product or an end result. The same cannot always to be said for the work we do to earn a living.

  9. The thing I like best about hard labor is having something to show for it that is wonderful. I like people questioning “you did that?” when I show them something in my garden or yard.

    It’s strange, during the winter I think about all of the work I do during gardening season and it blows my mind that I get all of that done… by myself.

  10. Thanks for the posting of essay. I listened and it put a lump in my throat.  I felt sad because I’m married to a man who was a ditch digger and beleive it or not he loved his job. He has a RA and can no longer do the back breaking hard work he loved to do, but on every day he can manage to get his power chair outside he does something, anything, physical from his chair. Others complain and take for granted their ability to do manual labor but they will never know what a gift it is until they can no longer do it.  Even though he is disabled he feels fortunate to have a home, a family, the abilitiy to get outside when he can and do hard work. I wish you knew him, he is amazing.   

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