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The Virtues and Vices of Gardening

The other morning, in a pensive moment at the sink brushing my teeth, this thought occurred to me: the bathroom vanity is the only piece of furniture in the house that is named for the sin we commit while using it.

Vanity is one of the seven deadly sins, isn’t it? I’m not sure—it’s been a while since I’ve seen the movie.

Botanical Interests

We don’t call the bed the “lust” or the sofa the “sloth”. As a self-employed person who can wander into the kitchen every 20 minutes to avoid working, lord knows my fridge should be referred to as the “gluttony”. But it’s not. Yet when we’re forced to gaze at ourselves in the mirror while flossing, the furniture itself reminds us not to like what we see too much. As if.

And did you know the seven deadly sins aren’t just from the Morgan Freeman film? They’re also mentioned in the Bible! When Ecclesiastes exclaims “Vanity of vanities!” it sounds like an ad for the best double-sink bathroom counter unit money can buy. But it’s actually a woeful lamentation on the pointlessness of human activity: We mortals hustling and trying to get ahead are doomed to fail and be forgotten. All is vanity! The story seems to single out gardening for scorn:

What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?

Well, fresh tomatoes for one thing. Yes, gardening is hard work. You really do have to toil at all that toil. But we gain a lot: healthy food, exercise, calluses. Nothing new under the sun, the scripture says? Maybe not, but even if generations have had similar experiences before, biting into that first ripe Cuore di Bue heirloom tomato will sure feel new and exciting to me.

Apart from these personal benefits, gardening makes us feel that we’re making the world a slightly better place. Our compost keeps waste out of landfills and improves the soil. Our homegrown veggies displace a bit of the industrial food system. And every moment in the garden is time not spent on Twitter.

That doesn’t seem pointless. But lately a more secular controversy has arisen about whether our actions matter, involving the guy who wrote 50 Simple Things You Can Do to Save the Earth, with tips for individual ways to help the environment—low-flow showerheads, reusable grocery bags, and yes, gardening and composting. A few years later, he gave up on this strategy, convinced that only systemic reform could save us and nothing we do in our little lives makes any difference. We don’t need 50 little things, the argument goes. We need five or six really big things.

My garden is really big, but apparently my compost doesn’t sequester quite enough carbon to offset the 1,400 gigawatts of coal power that China is ramping up to. So should we abandon our clotheslines and potagers as futile vanities and redirect that energy to political action? I don’t think we have to choose. Growing my own spinach doesn’t mean I can’t also vote, call my senators, and chain myself to the Keystone XL pipeline, you know, time permitting.

Imagine the world we could have if everyone spent just one hour a day gardening instead of retweeting Russian bots.

Large-scale change is surely needed, and everyone should be engaged. But getting too caught up in politics can be demoralizing. We can’t let it take over our lives. To paraphrase the cliché, no one on their deathbed will wish they had spent more time scrolling through Twitter.

In addition to healthy food for our bodies, the garden gives needed respite to the mind, restoring our sanity and energy to go back out and fight the good fight. Nothing like plunging your hands into the dirt to keep you grounded!

It’s hard to tear our attention away from the little screens that dominate modern life. Fortunately, gardening helps with this too. The full-color seed catalogs arriving daily in the mail may be the only thing that can distract us from the dreary news cycle. The photos of beautiful flowers and veggies—and the plans and dreams they inspire—give us just what we desperately need: something other than politics to obsess about.

Come autumn, at the end of the political and gardening seasons, we won’t wish we had spent less time in the garden. I for one prefer the company of gnomes to trolls. While internet trolls inundate us with greed, pride and the other seven deadlies, it helps to seek out some virtues. And how do they always say we get virtues? We cultivate them! Gardeners just happen to do that literally. Planting a seed and tending it for months takes plenty of faith and hope. Diligence and patience are gardening tools as essential as the rake and hoe. Comparing our results with the pictures in the catalog provides good practice in humility. And anyone who has grown zucchini knows the charitable feelings it inspires.

Imagine the world we could have if everyone spent just one hour a day gardening instead of retweeting Russian bots. Isn’t that the purpose of virtue: each person living in a way that seems to make no difference, except if everyone did it they could change the world? It’s like voting. Whether I vote or not has no effect on the outcome. Yet if I act like it matters and vote, and everyone else does the same, then it actually does! It’s an amazing thing, like watching one tiny seed turn into a huge vine full of lovely tomatoes.

Perhaps we should rename the garden after the virtues that germinate there. But we couldn’t, because it’s all of them. The word would be so long people would think it was the name of a town in Wales. Anyway, gardening doesn’t make us perfectly virtuous. How boring that would be. With the envy I feel looking at the perfect veggies in the seed catalogs and the wrath I’ll soon be directing toward the aphids, there’s room in the garden for some deadly sinning too.

John Hershey ( is an aspiring suburban homesteader in Littleton. To read more garden humor, visit



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