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I have home garden burnout

I wrestled with the question as I pondered taking a year off from all that growing: Am I still a gardener if I am not a constant one?

Radishes from the author's garden last summer.Lindsay Crudele

Last year, I grew two kinds of heirloom tomatoes from seed, coaxing them into infancy under bright lights, encouraging bulbs through the cold, early spring. When it was time for them to learn their first lessons, I shuttled them outside each day to toughen up in the breeze and the rain.

They slurped up lots of stinky fish fertilizer and nested in rich, compost-laced soil, their roots massaged by worms gifted by a departed friend. Their stalks grew tall and strong, half of them high-yield sauce tomatoes, and half a purple-rippled heirloom variety to slice open in the sun. Friends and family picked up flats and took them home to live out the summer in gardens across New England, including to a friend’s restaurant where they moonlit on his menu. I felt like the mother of all tomatoes.


But then, I hit the garden wall.

It is, as of today, more than two years into the pandemic, and I have raised pounds of vegetables, hand-nursed baby quail from a peacock chair in the wee hours, and rescued honey bee swarms from trees using homemade Rube Goldberg contraptions. For the first time in 15 years, right on the cusp of summer, I wonder if this year I will bother to lift a finger in the garden at all.

For many of us in recent times, our worlds became smaller, but in the garden, we could grow our own. Our focus, diverted inward, turned toward the garden bed. Short of moving outright to the country, gardening offered a semblance of control, and a quiet meditation on ritual, dedication, and patience. Out back digging in the dirt and the worms, we found a way to feel more alive, while bringing food itself into being. Those of us who grew, grew more. Those of us who didn’t, began.


Indeed, the popularity crush was called a garden boom. Following lockdowns in March 2020, seed companies, stressed by staffing constraints, struggled to keep up with demand, selling out of varietals and offering extended back-order schedules.

We grow because it makes us who we are: it brings us closer to our own roots as humans. Bringing up tomatoes has felt like a way to reach back to my Italian-American upbringing in a time when time and politics can fracture ideas of family. Container gardening in small spaces can turn a cement slab into a domestic oasis.

So on the cusp of the ceremonial start to summer, I posed the question online to my local gardening group: have you ever skipped a year? I was seeking solace, and maybe permission. But I got more than that. It turns out that for the reluctant gardener, our choices look better than domestic overkill or a tangled thicket of spent vines.

“You could just throw clover seed over everything and turn it over next year. That way you would have something to look at and healthier soil when you’re motivated to plant again,” advised Allston’s Jean Powers (my friend and the group’s admin).

A haul from the author's garden last summer.Lindsay Crudele

Powers is a devoted home gardener who maintains an idyllic patio space entwined with lush perennials and vegetable beds, who serves as admin for the 3,200-member Boston Area Gardeners group on Facebook. For her botanical efforts, she’s been recognized by the City of Boston’s official garden contest. And this year, she’s tired.


“It’s like we were home for two years under all this stress and still expected to perform and be engaged, and now we’re supposed to act like nothing happened,” she said. “But also, we’re supposed to be as devoted to our home lives as before, while simultaneously being engaged in work and social life.”

The trowel feels heavier this year for others as well, who chimed in. Some passed on a chance to move into a community garden plot. Others are joining me in suspended animation.

“By the end of last summer I kind of pooped out and did the bare minimum,” said John Radulski, of Branford, Conn. After a patch of health challenges, he’s adjusted his expectations. “I’ve rallied a bit this spring and just do what I can. So don’t worry about taking ‘time off’ — your brain is telling you to take a break!”

While I assumed taking a year off meant planting nothing at all, the low-maintenance cover crop proved a popular idea, as some urged me not to throw the baby out with the rainwater. Cover crops, such as clover, and other lower-maintenance plants may still be fruitful, counseled some.

“I let my community plot get taken over by strawberries and I also have a couple gooseberry bushes,” said Eva Kaniasty. “The only veggies I am growing are in self-watering containers, and only ones I really like and want. No reason to force yourself if you need a break.”

Scaling back, without eliminating the effort entirely, offered another angle for Patti Cassidy of Watertown. She suggested carving out a 2-foot-by-2-foot range, and only working on that plot.


What about a rebrand? Susan Conant of Newton suggested I hitch my wheelbarrow to the conservation biology term rewilding, which refers to the practice of allowing nature to reclaim cultivated space.

Am I still a gardener if I am not a constant one? Perhaps my passivity may serve as its own form of action. Lisa Breslin, of Salem, encouraged balance, recalling the Judeo-Christian tradition of sabbatical, and the Jewish shmita year, in which crops are given a break.

“It’s good to give the earth and yourself a rest year,” she said. “Let the soil rebuild itself. Plow leftovers under next year.”

The garden’s own lessons on diligence and patience become evident as we toil. But we also know the garden’s lessons on rest: we rotate crops to reduce disease risk and refresh the soil. Kale leaves grow sweet and tender in the frost, and garlic gone dormant becomes spicy and plump the next summer. And so we might ask ourselves who might we grow into when we pause and take a breath between seasons. It is never too late to plant something.

Lindsay Crudele can be reached at lcrudele@gmail.com.