Columns & essays,  Empty nest,  Where I'm published

Zen and the art of gardening

Titled “The Art of Midlife Gardening,” this essay was originally published in Victoria magazine.

Last spring, members of our local Master Gardener Society invited me to speak at one of their meetings. I was honored, at first, but as soon as the date of the talk rolled around, I started getting nervous.

And with good reason.

Master Gardeners aren’t just fooling around with bulbs and blossoms. These folks earn a minimum of 40 hours of instruction in horticulture science. Meeting for at least 11 weeks, they take classes in caring for indoor and outdoor plants, establishing lawns, growing vegetables and fruit trees, designing gardens, and more. I bow to their expertise.

Barely getting my hands dirty, I’ve written a few magazine pieces and newspaper columns on my romance with plants and flowers. I’ve shared back-yard memories of sweet peas and apple trees and my grandfather’s fern garden. But set me loose with a shovel, and I’m just an eager amateur who has murdered rose bushes and planted azaleas in the wrong spot.

Regardless, the kindly president of our Master Gardener Society assured me that his group of green thumbs would be open to anything I had to say about writing and gardening. They would humor me — and even offer some tips on deadheading my tulips. As I prepared for the talk, it occurred to me that gardens have taught me many valuable lessons. At this stage of my life, especially, gardening is rich with metaphor.

Five years ago, when my husband and I turned 50, our only child left home for college. That same year, we lost several old maple trees to disease. The removal of those trees wreaked havoc on our back yard: The lawn was totally destroyed and the surrounding beds were trampled. Not a single root or shoot was left of the delicate woodland shade perennials — trillium, Solomon’s seal, and bleeding heart — that I’d collected over the years.

As every gardener knows, the natural world serves to remind us that change and upheaval are part of the master plan. Likewise, our bulldozed back yard reflected my emotional state as I adjusted to the changes in my newly emptied nest. For a while, I felt uprooted in my own household. Yet it also occurred to me that when a new space opens up  — by choice or by accident — you have an opportunity to try something else; something you couldn’t do before.

A Japanese garden had been at the top of my wish list for several years, but until all those dead trees were removed, I never had the right spot for my dream garden. And so, with the help of a landscaping team, I created a path and some raised beds for my meditation garden, which now includes a small wooden bridge and a dry river of beach stones my husband and I collected from Lake Michigan. Today, the garden is an outdoor sanctuary, a peaceful escape from my writing deadlines and the clutter inside our home. It’s also living proof that middle age can be a signpost to a new life — not just the end of our greener years.

At the end of my talk, I reminded the Master Gardeners that I often struggle with acute writer’s block, or fallow time. I would guess that anyone who’s been doing the same work for so many years does too. Fallow time is the desert where ideas shrivel and evaporate, if they sprout at all. Fallow time is the waiting season, the creative slump, when blue moods hover like pending thunderstorms.  During fallow time, we can turn to the garden for another lesson.

Michigan winters are incredibly long and dull. For those of us who battle the blues, its easy to believe that spring might forget us on its way north. But just when things can’t get any gloomier, usually in early April, along comes a balmy 60-degree day — a day drenched in the scent of moist earth, tulip bulbs, and new grass waking up. Suddenly, a glimmer of hope breaks through, melting all those months of doubt and dejection. The frozen river thaws. Possibility stirs. And that is when I know it’s time to grab my tools, dig in, and begin again. — Cindy La Ferle

Titled “The Art of Midlife Gardening,” this essay was originally published in Victoria magazine and is reprinted here with permission.

Photo by Cindy La Ferle. 

Throughout my career, I've worked as a book production editor, travel magazine editor, features writer, and weekly newspaper columnist. My award-winning lifestyles features and essays have appeared in many national magazines and anthologies, including Newsweek, Reader's Digest, The Christian Science Monitor, Writer's Digest, Victoria, Better Homes & Gardens, Bella Grace, and more. My weekly Sunday "Life Lines" column ran for 14 years in The Daily Tribune (Royal Oak, MI) and won a First Place (Local Columns) award from the Michigan Press Association. My essay collection, Writing Home, includes 93 previously published columns and essays focusing on parenthood and family life.


  • Kathleen Scott

    What a lovely garden, Cindy. I know it cheers your heart, and you’ve provided structural interest for winter and summer.

    I chuckled at your depiction of master gardeners. They’re just folks who’ve added formality to their learning. The first thing that’s taught in the MG classes here is that you can’t be a real master gardener until you’ve killed 100 plants. I’m well on my way.

  • Cheryl Wright

    A lovely Japanese garden indeed. I can see how you find sanctuary within it.

    I am both energized and inspired by your experience with the connection between mid-life and gardening. I am intrigued with your interpretation of the dreaded writer’s block. Just renaming it “fallow time” replaces the dread with delight for all it brings when it appears.

    Fallow time. I can look forward to that.

    As always, thanks for a delightful and inspiring read Cindy.

  • Sharon

    The last paragraph brought to mind one of my favorite quotes: Then, when it seems we will never smile again, life comes back. Rebirth and growth ~ amazing gifts that keep on giving.

  • Angie Muresan

    Your garden sounds like a beautiful inspiration. I have read your book, and I know how insightful you are. I wonder if fallow time for you really does exist to the extent that it does for others.

  • Jan Lundy

    cindy, what a beautifully crafted article. congratulations. i could just feel your love of this gardening journey and your japanese garden is the fruit of that love. along with personal joy, i’d say. it is just marvelous, so inspiring. thanks for sharing this with us! bloom on.

    p.s. isn’t it true, that the garden can teach us anything we need to know…that is why i love it so. 🙂

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