Nurturing the Corporate Soul – Useful Lessons From My Garden

I’m an enthusiastic but lousy gardener. Thankfully, Rick and I don’t have to depend on my crops for survival. If we did, we’d be very hungry! My garden teaches me lessons the hard way-during the precious growing season. Then, it is too late for my crop and I have to wait until the next year to try again. If failures and mistakes are our best teachers, I’ve had many stellar learning opportunities! After 10 years of many blunders, I’m beginning to learn some lessons. While I will never be an expert gardener, I’m slowly improving. Moreover, my list of plant needs work for people too. Here’s what I’ve been learning:

Plants need the right conditions. Gardening is very complicated. Each plant has an array of needs. I am constantly experimenting to see where different crops will thrive. Do they want a sandy or alkaline soil? Is this patch of ground full of nutrients or has it been depleted through overuse? How much sun does this spot receive and is it early morning dappled light or late afternoon heat? Is it too windy? Moisture levels and types of nearby plants affect success.

I was amazed to learn that when a plant is stressed from poor conditions, it can succumb to insects and other parasites. When a plant is healthy and happy, it can ward off insects. If this sound crazy, Google the article from Chemical and Engineering News titled, “Plants Use Volatile Signaling Compounds to Fend Off Attack and Possibly Warn Nearby Plants.” (Warn nearby plants!?) Cornell University also writes about this phenomenon and The Middletown Journal says, “Stressed plants living in poor barren soil actually attract pests and disease. Healthy plants in healthy soil are able to fend off most disease and insect pests.”

Does this sound familiar? If I am in healthy relationships, in an occupation that suits my talents and interests, and get enough rest, play, and spiritual sustenance, I am more likely to fend off physical and emotional ailments.

For many years I worked in the theatre. I was often angry, paranoid, envious and frightened. Then I gave up the theatre and took up my current position in corporate training at a local community college. Since I was no longer competing for much-coveted theatre prizes or projects, I was suddenly relaxed. As I was new to the field of corporate training, I didn’t feel afraid of failure, I was intrigued and grateful for the job. The difference in my psychological state was immediate and stunning. It was as if I had suddenly been transplanted into the right soil for me. Moreover, since I was happy and relaxed all the time, new lucrative opportunities appeared and I was ready for them. In the theatre, I was so stressed that even when I found an opportunity, I was often too tense to be successful.

I was the same person but in a better location. Finding the right “soil” for ourselves is key. What do you need in your work? Extraversion? Creativity? Competition? Routine? Stability? Excitement? I have seen –in my garden and in myself– that the appropriate environment is the difference between disease and health.

Stressed plants produce little. If a plant is stressed it will, like many people, struggle valiantly against mounting foes but yield little. I’m reminded of a yellow, pock-marked bean plant that only produced one or two beans during the entire season. Before wasting too many more resources, I yanked it up and started over. Likewise, are we willing to pull the plug on our ambitions and plans and change course when a situation isn’t working for us? A friend, Mona, is true to her name: she moans a lot. She’s extremely unhappy in her job and has talked about leaving it for many years. As her unhappiness has grown, she has developed a chronic crabbiness and reacts angrily when hearing about another’s good fortune. Mona is terrified of change and so, even though she is desperate to quit, she struggles to keep positive and not let her mounting anxiety, depression, and rage show through. She continues, like my ailing plants, to persevere. And like my plants, her afflictions are obvious to everyone around her. Like an ailing plant, Mona may produce a bean or two but she spends most of her energy fighting enemies from without and within.

Plants need room. As a new gardener, I often tried to place too many plants within a small space. I was enthused and the plants were small. But as they grew, my dear vegetables succumbed to diseases, died inexplicably, or were stunted and under-performing. I had not given them enough space to thrive. The same principle applies to my co-workers and me. Do we give ourselves enough psychological space to relax, unwind, and find our own unique nutrients?

Plants need to be fed. Good soil = great vegetables. I have started to take care of some worms in my basement (really!) so that I can harvest their excellent casings. Plants LOVE worm casings. It may seem like a good deal of trouble, but just like people, plants need to be fed to stay healthy and productive. Aside from good nutritious food, how do you feed yourself?

Sometimes, detective work and perseverance are required. For the past several years, my squash and cucumber plants have been devastated without yielding a single vegetable! At first, I assumed it was “bad luck,” but as the years continued without a single zucchini, I began to do some detective work. Was this the work of the black walnut trees that had demolished my tomatoes years ago? No, I had moved my entire garden to avoid the poison emitted through the tree roots. Was it lack of water or too much water? Did they need fertilizer? No. No. No. A Google search revealed the culprit: the squash vine borer. This pernicious pest burrows into the ground so that next year it is ready to kill your new crop. I was advised to burn my old plants (I hadn’t) and either apply poison to the stems (tried that, didn’t work), inject good parasites into the stems (inject???), cover with mesh (only if soil isn’t infected-how can I be sure?), plant later in the season (tried, didn’t work) or monitor daily to pick off borer before they bore. Yikes! This was going to be a tough assignment. Why was this so hard for me? Co-workers were donating vast amounts of giant squash from their abundant crops. Why was my garden so plagued?

Like an ardent Cub fan, I clung to the idea of “next year’s win.” But I was beginning to see that good luck wouldn’t help me with the dreaded borer. I’m not sure of my plan for the coming season. Perhaps I’ll skip squash and cucumber for a couple of seasons. Or maybe I could create a fresh plot and cover with mesh? Could I grow them inside? (I love garden zucchini!) Whatever my plan, I see this challenge as a metaphor for the work of my soul. Some crops come easy to me: lettuce, beans (most of the time), spinach. These are like my natural skills and talents. I can be patient when someone is angry with me. I’m very good at listening. But I’m impatient with certain projects and can struggle with some kinds of criticism. These are my unique challenges. I can do detective work and discover the source of my dis-ease and then I can search for solutions. My challenges are different from my neighbors’ problems. I don’t need to compare myself. I only need to seek my own distinct remedies.

Pull up the small weeds before they get big: Despite my use of mulch (which led to slug problems), I am forced to weed regularly. I’m always surprised at how much I enjoy weeding, when I finally start. It is a wonderful, visceral metaphor of rooting out problems. After several hours, I see a clean area of soil. If only I could weed out my bad habits or perceptions so quickly! As a manager, I also need to pull out the small weeds–negative misunderstandings or attitudes– before they become big intractable problems for my team.

Seasons change: A garden is not a static place. Not only do seasons change, but year to year, the amount of rain, sun, heat, and wind can differ drastically. Two years ago, a huge brood of chipmunks decimated my tomatoes as they ripened. The next year they left my crop in peace.

Tending a vegetable garden (or the garden of my soul) requires me to be attentive to the actual conditions of today (not yesterday or tomorrow). I learn to be in the flow of life, the Tao. Most importantly, I learn humility. Nature is generous with delicious treats. She is also mysterious and powerful. I cannot dictate my will to Her. Instead, I must learn from her and be patient.