Magical Gardens: Myth, Mulch, and Marigolds

(from Magical Gardens: Myth, Mulch,and Marigolds by Patricia Monaghan)

Magical Gardens

All gardens are magical....

Magical gardens exist in many mythologies, but they exist in the mundane world too. That garden outside your door—isn't it a magical one?

It looks so ordinary, with its weeds and bugs, its patches of poor soil and points of dense dry shade. It hardly seems magical on those early summer days when the smallest weed seems twice the size of the biggest vegetable. It seems like the farthest thing from magic, the plot of ground that is simultaneously too small for our dreams and too large for our energies.

Yet that garden—that patch or acre or estate, that land where you encounter the primal forces of nature—is truly magic.

Does that seem too extreme a statement? Then consider the following definitions of magic, offered by scholars and practitioners. To Miriam Dexter, a leading scholar of goddess religion, magic is "attuning ourselves to the universe, to the goddess. Magic is becoming one with her and her vast power, then working with that power and focusing it toward a goal." Radio producer Karen Michel, who creates documentaries on contemporary spirituality and magic, offers this definition: "When the intended combines with the unexpected to have an effect that is finer and more surprising than what's hoped for, that's magic."

Edain McCoy, an expert on Celtic spiritual traditions, calls magic "a process of self-change. An old magical adage says that 'when you change, everything around you changes.' Magic is making self-changes in a manner which forces energy patterns in the outer world to conform to them, thus producing the desired outcome." Similarly, author and magician Donald Michael Kraig calls magic "the science and art of causing change in consciousness to occur in conformity with will, using means not currently understood by traditional Western science."

Gardening fits each one of these definitions of magic. What gardener has not felt the subtle attunement of self to universe that occurs when, on a late winter day no less blustery than the one before, a garden cries out for that great act of faith, planting—and then, within days, spring breaks like a sudden warm wave? What gardener has not recognized the combination of intent and surprise that comes of finding a self-sown bed of bright annuals across the garden from their parents? What gardener has not felt the subtle slow shift as the inner world aligns itself with the outer, occurring in the midst of even the humblest task, thinning carrots or mulching melons? And where is the gardener who believes—truly believes—that Western science knows all there is to know about gardening?

If magic is the transformation of the ordinary into the extraordinary, what better demonstrations than the rose unfurling its changeful beauties, the daffodil illuminating the spring sunshine, the daisy bobbing in a summer breeze? If magic is the exercise of will over circumstance, what better image than a rock garden full of alpine plants in a desert valley, or a balcony full of blooms high above an urban freeway?

Gardeners are magicians—weavers of magic. A seed is planted; some months later, a tall plant waves its flowers or dangles its fruit before us. No matter how many years a gardener has worked the soil, the ongoing miracle of vegetative life always seems magical. Take carrots. Those tiny seeds! They are so minuscule that our fingers are too clumsy to hold them individually. Yet in just a few months, these black dots put out tall plumed heads and build tough orange roots a half-foot long. When a carrot comes to the table, that miracle comes with it. We eat in communion with soil and water and air. Our bodies take nourishment and then, invisibly and magically, transform the flesh of the carrot into human flesh, thought, energy—and love

Magic is not confined to the vegetable garden. We are nourished as well by the visual beauty of flowers and shrubs. Throughout the year, the garden lavishes its gifts upon our senses. Winter trees trace their lacy outlines on the gray sky Then the burgeoning begins, and crocuses peep from melting snow. Soon peonies fling themselves upon the ground, glorious blooms too heavy for their sturdy stalks. Shrubs deck themselves with flowers and weight the air with heavy fragrances. Daisies banner the garden with color. Roses festoon fences and arbors with gorgeous crimsons, clear pinks, pristine whites. Asters shine like miniature stars and the pompoms of chrysanthemums cheer us into fall. Then trees blanket themselves in one last dance of color before winter comes again to garden and to gardener.

For thousands of years, people have cooperated with earth's transformations by cultivating plants near their homes. For that is the essence of the garden: whether composed of herbs or roses, grasses or vines, a garden is nearby nature. It may become weedy and wild when we momentarily turn our backs, but it is not wilderness; it is a threshold between nature's wildness and the enclosures we need for comfort and protection.

In wilderness, we find beauty but not magic. Where vegetation grows unimpeded, unaltered by human will and vision, we have pure nature, not magic. Magic is what occurs when nature's fecund beauty meets our energy and our desire. In the garden, we corral nature's blossoms and fruits for our pleasure and nourishment; she responds, on her own terms, giving some gifts we never thought to seek and withholding others we crave. Nature and the gardener bend and sway in a dance that, for all its various forms, is ultimately the same in bee-loud gardens everywhere.

If every garden is magic, then every gardener is by definition a magician. Some are unconscious of this aspect of gardening, even unwilling to define their activity in this way; they think of gardening merely as an aesthetic pleasure or as good exercise. Others, however, eagerly embrace the magical aspects of gardening. For such gardeners, gardening is a life-enhancing ritual that can be connected consciously with all other such rituals. For the magical gardener, dream and poem and dance are as much a part of the garden as fertilizer and seed. So are myth and legend and story, ancient rituals, old songs and prayers—the folkways of ancestors.

The magical gardener is never entirely alone in the garden, for goddesses and gods, elves and devas—powers of life and growth, however they are named—are there as well. They may make their presence known through tantalizing and playful occurrences, or they may remain watchful and hidden. The magical gardener never doubts that there are such powers to be encountered just outside the back door and listens for the spiritual messages gardens offer. For magical gardening means consciously engaging in the cosmic dance, consciously holding out a hand to the earth, consciously forging connection....

There are three components to magical gardening: becoming aware of traditions and narratives that hold insights into the connection between self and earth; becoming conscious of the earth's special needs, the better to craft a connection to her; and becoming knowledgeable about specific plants and techniques that lead to gardening success. We shall call these components myth, mulch, and marigolds, respectively....

Myth: Stories That Nourish and Bloom

Once upon a time, in a garden....

How many myths and legends begin that way? Dozens, scores, hundreds. For the garden is one of the great archetypal settings for stories of spiritual power. Western civilization's major myth begins with the image of Eden, a place where humans and animals live in timeless, carefree comfort. There, a divine gardener provides all manner of tasty fruits and foods for Eden's occupants, who graze through the garden, never having to stoop to plant or labor to harvest. Untimely weather never destroys seedlings, nor does drought ever wither Adam and Eve's dinner. And although Genesis does not provide exact pest-control information, it does not appear as though nematodes and slugs ever ravish the crops.

Into this idyll, scripture tells us, comes a devilish serpent who tempts our ancestors to eat from the one forbidden tree. Having succumbed to the snake's blandishments, humans are cast out of Eden, forced thereafter to toil and sweat, to plant and cultivate and harvest. This world, then—our major myth tells us—is a failed copy of a glorious original. The garden of Eden, invisibly tended and watered, was a place in which all was predictably beautiful and perfect. Our world, the story of Eden tells us, may be beautiful; its fruits may be sweet and its flowers fragrant, but somewhere beyond time real beauty, real sweetness, real fragrance has been lost because of human hunger. How different this myth is from that of Abuk, whose acknowledgment of her hungers led to human salvation!

Although Eden is held up as an image of gardening perfection, the magical gardener would not, in fact, feel comfortable in such a place. For the dance between imagined perfection and hard-won reality is what gives gardening its pleasure as well as its spiritual meaning. Not that Eden doesn't appeal: every winter, it tempts the mind's eye. This year, the Eden vision seductively promises, the peas will clamber up their little fences without fail, every tomato will ripen, every carrot will thicken without growing woody, and not a single forgotten zucchini will swell to cannon size beneath its sheltering leaves. In the flower border, the alyssum will spread evenly across the edge, the rose leaves will flourish unspotted, and—most importantly—no weeds will outstrip the seeded annuals.

This imagined Eden is the seedbed of the real garden in which rains cause seedlings to damp off, roses are attacked by rust, and volunteer yarrow run amok in the perennial bed. Real weeds display their astonishing vigor, perseverance, and fecundity. Real squirrels eat the strawberries, real crows peck out the beans. And the magical gardener looks, listens, learns—and continues gardening. For it is in this tension between the mind's Eden and the changing, challenging real garden that we find our greatest lessons.

Even if Eden were possible, it would not last long. Imagine a moment of Edenic harmony in the garden. Not a weed can be seen; every leaf is whole and unblemished; the flowers hold their brilliant blossoms out for our delight. Now come back the next day. Flowers need deadheading, trees cry out for pruning, bushes are stretching out ungainly shoots, and perennials crowd themselves beyond flowering. Perfection is an instant in the garden's life. And so the gardener, once again, joins the dance of planting, tending, and harvesting.

If the myth of Eden presents a distinctly unmagical garden, myths and legends of other cultures speak more fully to the magical gardener's soul. Ancient and tribal people created narratives emphasizing the connection of plant and human life. Often in these tales the earth is female—sometimes a mother, sometimes a splendid fair daughter. The Greeks sing of Demeter, searching weeping through the world for lost Persephone and spreading flowers across the land when she returns. The Cherokee tell of Selu, the old corn mother who gives of herself that her children may eat. The Japanese relate a similar tale of the goddess Ukemochi, whose body decays into all the foods we need to survive....

There is no single worldwide myth representing all that we know about the earth. Rather, the myriad and complex spiritual realities perceived by our forebears have been wrought into dozens of beautiful (although sometimes also terrifying) stories. The earth is no more feminine than it is masculine. Similarly, the earth is not only generous and kindly; it can also be pictured as proud, wanton, withholding—and sometimes, as all of these at once.

The magical gardener learns these stories. On dark winter nights it is not enough just to read seed catalogues and sketch color diagrams. A truly magical gardener would deem it insufficient to study Latin nomenclature while knowing nothing of Roman religion, with its wild-strawberry goddess Venus and its spring rituals of bean tossing. To plant dusty miller without recognizing it as a plant named for the wildwood goddess Artemis is unthinkable to such a gardener. The lore and legend of each plant is as important to the magical gardener as its climatic suitability, its form, its color. It is this attention to the archetypal, the symbolic, the mythic, that distinguishes the magical gardener.

Mulch: Actions That Nurture the Earth

Gardens provide joy and nourishment for us. And what do we give back to our gardens?

A one-sided relationship with the earth is impossible for the magical gardener. Even if, in the beginning, our interest is limited to determining what we get from the garden, within a few growing seasons we are forced to become more balanced. For what garden plot will go on yielding, year after year, without the soil being nourished, without irrigation, without cultivation?

Much of a gardener's work revolves around nurturing the soil. From the first spadeful of dirt turned over during spring cultivation to the removal of pest-harboring leaf litter in late fall, the garden's year is organized around earth-sustaining tasks. It is, of course, quite possible to take shortcuts—to bloat plants with chemical fertilizers, to poison the garden in attempts at pest control. The well-meaning gardener may employ such techniques ignorantly in the beginning, or in desperation later. But shortcuts have a price, whether paid onsite or downriver, whether paid in this growing season or another. The magical gardener soon realizes that the earth is not a servant—not even an employee. The earth is a parent, a child, a lover. The earth, seen as a person, is one who asks for an equal relationship, giving and receiving. Generous as it may be, the earth needs for us to be just as generous in return.

One of the true joys of gardening is intimacy with a specific piece of land. Thus, although the mythic paradigm most often used in speaking of Gaia is a maternal one (Mother Earth), the actual experience of gardening is more like being in love. Not, perhaps, like falling in love, although the first sight of a fertile new garden plot can evoke something like infatuation. No: to garden is to make love last, to learn by heart the land's tiny quirks and peculiarities, to relish the predictable moments of joy and to delight in the unpredictable ones, to soothe hurts and to embrace limitations. One who has learned to garden has learned to love; one who knows about love can certainly learn to garden.

To love the earth, the gardener must nurture it. Left alone, the earth is self-renewing. In wilderness, the land does not call out for artificial irrigation or winter mulching; ecosystems adapt to climate, birds and animals both devour and spread plants, and balance is maintained. That balance is not, however, always maintained gently. A harsh winter kills seedlings, fire levels an old-growth forest, drought parches a marsh. The balance is a rough one, in all meanings of that word, and it is maintained over years rather than single seasons.

But a garden is not wilderness. Where we create gardens, we change nature. The change begins with the building of our necessary shelters. Then we reach beyond the house to tame and settle the lands around us. We cut down trees that might fall on our homes. We plant a line of poplars to protect our homes from wind, or oaks to shade it. We sink a well, drawing out the invisible water that has fed deep-rooted plants, and splash it on shallow-rooted but cheery flowers. Altering nature's plan, we must then take responsibility to maintain the environment we have created. As the French author Antoine de Saint-Exupery said, we become responsible for that which we tame.

One could easily, from this description, see the gardener as a consciousness separate from the vast mind of Gala. Such a gardener would willfully impose on Gaia's order, creating an artificial one despite her. But no one is separate from the earth. It is just as possible to see the gardener—working in the hot sun, turning soil, casting seeds, harvesting and mulching—as earth's servant. And perhaps this vision is more accurate. Can we really be sure that it is human arrogance that leads arctic gardeners to spend thousands of dollars to build greenhouses to nurture tomatoes—rather than the desire of the tomato family to travel? How can we be certain that a yearning desire for a rose garden, just there, is not the dream of the land itself, rather than one that is entirely the gardener's? For if the gardener is part of nature, not separate from her, then our work is an expression of the world itself.

Thus the second part of magical gardening is the nurturance of the earth that nurtures us. It is an ongoing university of mind, body, and spirit, wherein we let the earth teach us of her needs—and where, in meeting them, we learn to meet our own.

Marigolds: Knowledge That Heals and Sustains

In Greek myth, Midas was a king so compulsively greedy that piling up all the gold in the land was not enough for him. One day, overcome with craving for the yellow metal, he prayed that everything he touched would be turned into gold. Granted that wish, Midas rushed about his palace in a frenzy, turning everything—from old dishpans to buzzing flies—into gold. Rounding a corner, Midas discovered his small daughter. Excited about his newfound power, Midas embraced her joyously.

The girl's warm flesh grew cold beneath his fingertips, and her smile stiffened. In an instant, the princess was a small gold statue, a look of baffled love still upon her face.

Happily for the king—and even more happily for the princess—his "Midas touch" was reversed. The child warmed and softened again as he kissed her back to life. Then the king rushed back through his palace, returning everything to its pre-gold state. Only a little flower, the marigold, was not quite restored: its blossoms remained, thereafter, colored brilliantly gold as a reminder to us all not to make Midas' mistake.

And what was that mistake? The story is usually viewed as a cautionary tale about greed: don't value money more than the tender embrace of loved ones, it warns. Don't settle for dead metal when you can enjoy the living presences of birds and flowers. Don't imagine that what can be bought will make you happier than what cannot.

Magical gardeners can glean even more meaning from this simple story. For the compulsion that Midas feels is a familiar one: to trade this mortal, ever-changing world for an immutable, even immortal, one. Yet the only real joy, as the king finds, is in those very temporal—and temporary—beings whom he earlier spurned. This is a lesson magical gardeners learn over and over: that we cannot cling to the beauties of our lives and our gardens, for part of that beauty is its transience. The flush of early season brilliance passes across the rose garden and fades. Autumn sweeps color across the trees, then fades. The glassy shine of icy lace on a winter's morning melts, all too soon.

Gardening, as a spiritual discipline, forces us to live wholly in the present, to acknowledge each moment's special beauty and its brevity. When we observe a bee alight upon a perfectly formed sunflower, we can choose to ignore it and keep weeding or pause to attend to its passing glory. There is a part of each gardener pushing forward, calling us to plan, to labor, to produce. But there is another part that stops planning, laboring, producing—stops and holds still within an endless moment. If part of each gardener seeks to alter the landscape, another part simply loves this sensuous world while acknowledging its mortality.

Unlike Midas, gardeners do not seek to freeze this world into static perfection. Rather, they recognize where true gold is found. The Greeks called the goddess Aphrodite "the golden one" because of the way in which love transforms the beloved with radiant beauty. A similar radiance illuminates the garden when it is tended with love and deep care.

Just as love among people is based on intimate knowledge, so too for the gardener. While it is easy to be infatuated with the colors and fragrances of a plant whose name you do not know, real relationship is built upon knowledge: of a plant's preferred conditions for growth, its season of bloom, its history and lore. So the final part of magical gardening is understanding the plants that compose the garden as well as the design principles that join them into a complementary whole.

That marigold, for instance: it is a sun-loving annual of the genus Tagetes, named for the god Tages, who taught the Etruscans how to find gold through divining. It has a long history of connection with the metal sharing its flower's hue; its common name derives from an early Christian practice of offering it in place of coins at Marian altars, hence "Mary's gold." Valued for its healing properties, marigold has been used in many ways: as a garnish on broth to strengthen the heart, as an ointment for toothache, as a wart remover when mixed with wine. A favorite companion plant for many vegetables, it is thought to repel the parasitic worms called nematodes; its pungency is also said to repel four-legged pests like rabbits from devouring the lettuce. Planting marigolds, the magical gardener attempts not only to find the appropriate placement in the garden but also to consider and, when possible, employ its history and lore in building the magical garden.

The plants that come to us bear, encoded within them, the entire history of the genus and species of which they are a part. And we, as gardeners, are just the latest representatives of the humans who have acknowledged, tended, or even tried to eliminate that plant's kin. We are not alone in the garden, even when we labor quietly at dawn in an apparently silent world. Around us are the ghosts of gardeners past, tending gardens past. We can connect with these early gardeners consciously, through study and research. We can also, sometimes, feel their elusive presence when we move as they moved beneath the same sky that roofed their world. Just as in dreams we can encounter archetypal forces, so in the waking dream of the garden we can sense the power of the eons-old relationship between humanity and the plant kingdom. Through intimate knowledge of the plants and their needs, we forge the connection between our species and theirs.

Other gardeners, as well as books like this, will help you gain that intimate knowledge, which grows over many years. As those years pass, celebrate your deepening knowledge through ritual that uses the garden both to mark seasonal changes and the changes in your life. As the cycle of the garden's year meshes with the longer cycle of your growth, maturation, and decline, you will deepen your connection to the earth and the earth's other children.

Dark Woods and Primrose Paths

This book will introduce you to some of the ways in which gardening is a form of magic. You may choose to define magic as ritual action taken to create change in the world, as a way of attuning oneself to cosmic forces, or even as a joyous and delightful sensual experience, as when we say of a splendid evening, "it was just magical!" Because magic cannot be dogmatically defined, neither can the magical garden. It is any garden that you, in consciousness and with intent, create for yourself and for your own healing.

It is not a garden without shadow, for darkness is part of life as well as dawn and bright midday. It is not a garden without weeds, for chaos is an omnipresent force in life and in the garden. Caring for such a garden is not an unmitigated joy, for there will be days of frustration as well as those of delight. But your magical garden will be a source of continuing inspiration for you. It will be one of your greatest teachers, showing you ways into spirit you had not previously seen and could not otherwise discern.

Patricia Monaghan, Magical Gardens: Myth, Mulch, and Marigolds (St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn Publications, 1997), pp. 1-11.

For more information about the author, visit Patricia Monaghan.

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Last modified on February 7, 2005 by Kay Keys (