One of my myriad unexpected learnings from spending more time in gardens and on farms over the past two years has been around understanding people; finding ways to be more patient, kind, and compassionate with others — and with myself.
What’s more, gardening has taught me to follow instructions while adapting to the circumstances, a skill that has come in surprisingly handy when navigating administrative tasks and bureaucracy!
I do have a rebellious streak that I nurture and am proud of – which is part of what led me to quit my job and travel around the world for a year to learn how to farm – but fundamentally I am good at following instructions. Case in point, I quite enjoy building IKEA furniture. I don’t always get it right the first time around but given how useless it is to get angry at screws and bits of wood, usually the end result is whatever unpronounceable Swedish word I set out to build.
In the garden just like in real life outside of DIY furniture, it isn’t always that straightforward.
The first time I took the lead on a seedling project was when I was volunteering at a bed & breakfast in the mountains North of Bogota, in Colombia. There for two weeks, one of our tasks was to set up a vegetable garden. I got seedling trays, filled them with soil, and following instructions on the packaging in terms of how deep each seed had to be sown, I planted a variety of seeds, carefully labeling every row. I watered them every morning, keeping them on the windowsill so they could benefit from the warmth of the sun without the biting cold of the mountain air, and taking them outside into the sun during the warmest hours of the day. Every evening I watered them again before bringing them back inside.
When that first little shoot poked its head out of the soil, I whooped with joy and did a happy dance. From then on, I added talking to my seedling trays multiple times a day, cheering the seeds and sprouts on and giving them general words of encouragement.
Quite a few seeds sprouted into shoots, but even more of them remained underground, oblivious to my enthusiasm and provision of the most optimal growing conditions I could muster.
It was hard not to take it personally at first, but the more I thought about it the more non-judgmental I became. Maybe the seeds needed a little longer to decide it was safe to come out. Maybe they were slow growers in that very first phase. Maybe some of the seeds were old and no longer viable. And maybe the conditions just weren’t right for them.
The bottom line was that each seed was on its own journey of growth, irrespective of the instructions on the package they came in. They intuitively knew better than to sprout just because I wanted them to.
The same is true for people (and they don’t even come with instructions!).
Connecting the dots between plants and people has allowed me to be more understanding with myself and others – and to be more flexible and creative in how I interpret instructions both on seed packages and beyond.
As my partner and I embark on the adventure of buying land and fixing it up into a small farm and eco-tourism project in Portugal, this same creativity is what keeps me sane as we navigate the bureaucracy and try to find the best way to work with local lawyers and architects who need more than sunlight and good soil to make our home come to life.
Every individual is their own universe of experience, goals, fears, relationships, and comfort zones.
Here are three ways to succeed at growing seedlings or navigate a challenging people-situation:
1. Read the room: is the soil in your seedling tray moist enough or looking dry? Is the person you are interacting with at work or during that admin errand looking down, annoyed before you even say hello, or red-nosed from the cold they are fighting? Shift your focus to making them smile before you ask anything of them, or lend them a listening ear for a minute and see if it helps.
2. Think about what you can change: did you follow the instructions you were given, or could you improve on them – move your seedling trays to somewhere with more natural light perhaps? Based on the rules you are aware of, is what you are asking reasonable or even feasible? If not, could you amend it in any way? In other words, if you were in the shoes of the person across from you, would you want to help you?
3. Remember your goal: it’s not about you; you’re trying to give seeds what they need to grow so if you don’t see sprouts after a week or so, remember what you want to achieve and try again – without berating yourself, merely learning from your experience. Similarly, try not to get bogged down in what deadlines got missed or what miscommunication may have thrown your timeline off. Adjust, learn from what happened, and keep moving forward.
Compassion has the power to lift the weight of judgment off your shoulders; not only that, but it can also inspire people around you to truly want to help. And don’t they say it takes a village?
Shahnaz Radjy is an adventurer, a foodie, a bookworm, and a horse-lover. As a writer, aspiring farmer, and eternal optimist, she shares some of her thoughts and adventures on her travel blog, via Medium, as well as on Instagram.
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