What I Learned From My Garden Box

*hint: boundary setting, compassion, behavior activation, effective communication, and more

I’ve always been wary when I’ve met a superior in a job placement who says the words, “I need you to anticipate my needs.” Okay, let’s get real… I have come to hate those words- as in my nervous system hearing someone dragging their nails against a chalkboard whenever anyone says that phrase. I heard it a lot in my 20s when I was an intern, a volunteer, an apprentice, or any kind of career starter. And I often heard it when working in non-profits or any kind of humanitarian effort I’d invested energy in. After soul searching and reflection, I’ve realized whenever someone asks me to know or guess what they need, they’re easily bypassing an important part of relationship development, community building, leadership, or management- setting norms and expectations.

In every relationship, it takes time to learn people’s hard no’s, enthusiastic yeses, and what they’re willing to try tentatively with a little bit of support and TLC. It takes time to know what to expect from someone- What brings them joy? What scares the heck out of them? What are their values? What brings them discomfort or comfort? It also takes some real effort for each of us to become aware of the answers to these questions for ourselves.

One of the most popular topics I’ve been working on of late with my clients is boundary setting. It often comes as a surprise that there are so many different types of personal boundaries:

  • Physical Boundaries
  • Material Boundaries
  • Intellectual Boundaries
  • Emotional Boundaries
  • Sexual Boundaries
  • Time Boundaries

No matter how much someone tries to convince you, it’s not an act of community service or compassion to “anticipate” someone else’s needs or wants. It can be detrimental, cruel, and even downright abusive to demand or expect people to guess and spend a great deal of time and energy trying to figure out what makes someone else feel safe, comfortable, or thriving. Equity in boundary setting is about building safe and brave dialogue- asking what someone else may need, listening to what they say, and deciding if you can or want to give them what it is they’re asking of you. The above sentiment was solidified for me during this pandemic when I began to plant an herb garden in my yard. It seemed daunting for me since I have a history of killing plants, but I figured it would be amazing to spend time away from our busy grocery store and to have medicinal and tasty herbs on hand to incorporate into our daily food.

At first, I tried to sprout seedlings. I ordered 20 types of seeds and little eco-friendly planters. I kept them on top of my dog’s kennel in the sunlight of my living room. Whatever I did they would not sprout. I watered them consistently each day for two weeks, and I moved them around to different places thinking maybe they got too much sun, touched the soil to see if the little planters were too saturated or dried out, and added some compost on top. And nothing. No matter how many articles I read, how many Instagram videos I watched, or how many times I called my green-thumbed friend for consultation- I did not know, nor could I figure out what these precious seeds needed or wanted.

The first thing I planted was dill, because duh, dill is profoundly delicious and adds powerful character to anything from tuna fish salad to chicken soup (there are a lot of dishes in between there where it makes sense to use dill). I also planted green onions because all I had to do was shove the ends of the onions I’d used the night before into the soil, and poof they’d shoot up and make more green onion. There was also basil, parsley, cilantro, and later on sage, oregano, and thyme. Each day, I’d go outside for at least 15 minutes with my pup and I’d stand there and look intently at my garden touching things in it and thinking: What was growing? What was dying? What kinds of bugs had decided to munch on things or camp out? What was the soil doing? Were there mushrooms or fungus? What colors were the leaves? Were the herbs tasting right? What were they telling me today?

I loved looking at my garden each day. I’d feel like a little kid who was saying hi to Mickey Mouse at Disney World because of how much awe I was in of what my plants were doing every day. And with the way my plants stood there under the blue sky, looking up at the southern sunlight, I could swear they were saying hello to me as well. My visit to my garden each day became a daily conversation where I was saying “Hi there! How are you doing? How can I help you? Is there anything I have to give you that you might need?” And that practice of being with them began to stay with me until I started to tell my friends, my family, and the people I do therapy with how my connection with my plants was teaching me about what we need as humans- to learn how to check in with each other each day and volunteer what we can, but only as we’re in dialogue with one another.

Plants are slow communicators. Plants exude peace. Their nature is about equity- you give them a safe and healthy space and they will give you what they can. Their beauty is deep and infinite. People are often slow to reach insight or slow to know what they need.