Weekend: Gardens more than dirt, plants

It took a book about gardening in times of war to help me understand why I grow my flowers.
“Defiant Gardens: Making Gardens in Wartime,” by Kenneth I. Helphand, is a terrific read on gardens grown by soldiers in WWI and WWII, prisoners in Nazi Germany ghettos and Japanese-Americans in internment camps.
Helphand offers six reasons why soldiers and prisoners grew flowers and crops.
The reason that overarches the rest like the center of an umbrella is control. Of the “trench gardens,” Helphand says, “With everything out of control, why not wrest control of the war-torn environment to create a square foot of beauty?”
The five other reasons branch out from the first, like ribs forming an umbrella’s center.
The second reason to garden is life. In the defiant gardens, we see persons in extreme circumstances drawing life from their gardens.
Of the POWs in the world wars, Helphand says “fear was pervasive” and gardens offered “places…of quiet, shelter, and elements of the natural world.”
The third reason is hope. Defiant gardens assert the possibility of a future. A plant emerging from a garden “is a sign of regeneration, and an indication of the continuation of life.”
Garden-hope presents a vision to work for.
“Growing things to eat envisions a world where all ought to be fed. Growing flowers envisions a world where all ought to experience beauty.”
The fourth reason is home. More than a house, home is where we come from, the places that have become a part of us.
Soldiers and prisoners remembered flowers their parents and grandparents used to grow. Defiant gardens brought a sense of home to persons living in extreme conditions.
The fifth reason is work. The therapy of the defiant gardens came not just from the “finished garden itself,” but even more “from the process of gardening.”
A Lodz (Poland) ghetto resident told of exhausting labors in his garden.
“I became very fond of working in the field…for the time that I was there, I could forget about the daily problems of ghetto life,” the Pole said.
The sixth reason is beauty. Beauty vies with food as a major aim of gardening.
Art critic, Elaine Scarry put it: “Beauty quickens…adrenalizes…makes the heart beat faster…makes life more vivid, animated, living, worth living.”
A Japanese-American internee liked to “nurse little growing things in her room…just once again to see the beauty of young, living plants.”
As a flower grower, I’m thankful for Helphand’s book. He helps me to better understand why I work my soil every spring, and fight the insects, diseases and all the rest that gardening entails every summer.
The resulting beauty reminds me and hopefully proclaims to passers-by that even with the terrible things that make the nightly news and grab the daily headlines, that all is not bad with the world.
In a world seen often as out of control, we can create at least one spot of order for our refuge. In a world of horrible happenings, we can create and experience life, hope, home, work and beauty.
Campbell is a Hancock County Master Gardener volunteer and a retired United Methodist pastor.


About the Author