One Tool, Many Gardens

Everywhere I’m planted.

However, temporarily.

I put in a garden.

I’ve planted gardens in North Bend (OH), Richmond (IN), San Diego (CA), Fredericksburg (VA), and Richmond (VA).

With borrowed tools and borrowed plants, I also planted a garden in St. Louis.

I was in graduate school.

Kyra and I were renting the bottom level of a duplex.

I landscaped the front.

Our landlord liked what he saw and asked me to landscape his other properties.

“Keep your hours and receipts” he said.

And, he handed me a spade.

“It’s your’s” he said.

That’s how we met.

My first garden tool.

You know, they say for every tool there is a task.

That’s true.

But, for us, it didn’t matter.


Putting in fence posts.

Planting trees.

Edging beds, sidewalks and driveways.

Cutting through long dead tree roots.

Dislodging rocks.

Unearthing long-forgotten concrete slabs of sidewalk.

Peeling back turf.

Turning over compost.

Uprooting trees.

Moving shrubs.

Dividing plants.

We did it together.

I had no choice.

It was the only tool I had. 

It still holds true today.

If I’m in the garden, I have my spade.

No matter the task.

We do it together. 

Yeah, sometimes, you’ll see me with another garden tool.

Nowadays, I can afford them.

But, I wont hold it long. 

And, not in the same way.

I’m loyal.

Not sure how to say this.

But, I’ve got feelings for it.

This tool.

This physical object.

I care for it. 

Honestly, even using the pronoun “it” doesn’t feel right. 

Because, it’s more than a tool.

It’s an extension of me.

And, it’s not just a spade.

It’s my link to the mystery.

If I learn something unsettling about my past.

If someone I love passes away.

If I forget who I am, don’t know what to do, or wonder if I’m enough.

I go to the shed.

Grab it.

And, no matter the weather or the season, we get to digging. 

Our movements are fluid.



I’m on my knees.

Soil all over me.

Submitting to something bigger than me. 

And, with its help, I find my way forward or my way back.

Whatever it is I need, I find it.

We’ve been at it for 21 years now.

And, together, we have fashioned a way for me to raise myself, build a family, and bring a bit of wild back into the world.

Five years ago, we were digging out a deep-rooted Buddleia

We’d been digging for over an hour before we got to the main root stem.

I cut into the root.

Pulled back.

The blade of the spade gave way.

It had never done that before.

I pulled it out.

Inspected it.

I found a tiny crack in the center of the blade.

At the time, it seemed all right.

So, I got back to work.

Didn’t give it another thought.

That is, until last spring.

I was gleefully digging out some native switch grasses.

I love to hear the tear of the roots.

It sounds cruel.

It’s not.

Grasses thrive on disruption.

They’re “anti-fragile”. 

Anyways, I was stabbing the ground around the edge of the grass, stepping on the top edge of the blade, pushing it deep into the soil, pulling back, pushing it in deeper and pulling back. 

Repeating this pattern, I circumnavigated the grass until I got underneath the rootball.

Plucking a plant from the ground’s grip is one of the most satisfying aspects of any dig.

Eager as always, I pulled back hard.

The blade buckled.

I gasped!

Yanked it out of the soil and inspected the crack.

It was bigger.

Much bigger.

I was scared.


I set the spade aside and grabbed a shovel from the shed to finish the job.

I’d never done that before.

Feeling guilty.

Not sure what to do.

I was flooded with questions.

Do I buy a new spade?

Hell, no.

We’re in this together.

Do I start using the right tool for the task?

I don’t like using other tools.

I like having one tool. 

That’s it.

Would it have of lasted longer if I had kept it on task?

Yeah, probably so.

But, if I had kept it on task, then it would have been just another tool.

A tool that was always tasked but never challenged.

What would it want me to do?

Does it want me to take it easy so that we can grow old together? 

Or, does it want me to continue attacking tasks until the end, no matter the risks, until it irreparably breaks?

What would I want for myself?

Would I want to spend my days in a darkened shed with the scope of my tasks becoming more and more circumscribed?

That sounds awful.

But, maybe that’d be all right.

That is, as long as I still get to touch the soil as long as I can.

Because, every time I touch the soil, I learn something new about myself.

So, the more time I get with the soil the better.

They say we humans can go without food for 3 weeks.

Water for 1 week.

No one really knows how long we can go without sleep.

They say the record is 264 hours.

I wonder if anyone has ever researched how long we can go without touching the soil.

For me, its a week.

After that, I start feeling anxious.



All of the classics signs of soil-deprivation.

I decided that my spade feels the same way.

So, since last spring, we’ve been taking it easy.

But, not that easy.

It’s still the first tool I grab.

It’s still the first tool that starts every task.

I still attack some tasks.

Some I don’t.

And, I’m more attuned to its limits.

When I reach those limits, I reach for another tool.

But, I set it in the soil first.

We’re gonna finish this life together.

And, we’ve got many more gardens to plant. 


If you enjoyed this blog, you may enjoy my This is the Work newsletter.

Thanks. – shawn