To be a successful gardener, you have to think in years and seasons. Living at the pace of a plant is a welcome antidote to a culture built on convenience and instant gratification.

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I started gardening during COVID, and I’ve stuck with it. As a writer, I spend an inordinate amount of time in front of a keyboard. It gives my life balance to have a hobby that’s physical, something to do that takes me outdoors and away from screens. Working in the sun and fresh air never fails to improve my mood, as well as my health.

I’m admittedly a lazy gardener. I don’t like annual flowers that die every winter and have to be replaced every spring. That’s more work and money than I care to invest in a hobby. Besides, most of the annuals on sale at the gardening store don’t belong here. They’re species that are popular because they grow quickly or bloom reliably, but they hail from all over the world. They’re not native to the northeast US, where I live.

Although they’re harder to find, I prefer to plant native perennial species (here’s a native plant finder from Audubon). They fit better into the local ecosystem because this is where they evolved. They’re beneficial to wildlife, attracting bees, birds, and other friendly pollinators.

Best of all, perennial species send down deep roots that survive the winter, so they grow back year after year. Once they’re established, you don’t have to do much except water them. For a one-time investment of effort, you get a beautiful garden every spring that largely takes care of itself.

Of course, it’s not quite that easy, because you still have to find plants that do well in your local microclimate. The soil type, the pH, the mix of sunlight and shade, the other species already present: all these can determine whether a plant will grow in your yard, even if it’s one that’s native to the region.

Even when everything looks right on paper, plants don’t follow predictable rules. They aren’t machines. They’re living things, with their own whims and idiosyncrasies and variations, no two exactly alike. To get a good mix, it takes some experimentation to see what works and what doesn’t. Three years later, I’m still planting different species each spring to see which ones fare best and which ones complement each other. If I live here another ten years, perhaps by then I’ll be completely satisfied.

Rendering the verdict of evolution

Buying an annual plant that someone else grew in a greenhouse is like buying a meal from a fast-food place. It’s convenient, it saves time, but it takes you out of the process. For me, half the fun is getting my hands in the soil, kneeling among the earthworms and ants and pill bugs. The work itself is fulfilling, not just the result. When a plant grows and blooms under your ministrations, it gives you a real sense of achievement.

Some of the perennials I’ve planted come as packets of seeds. But you can’t just throw them in the ground any time you want and be done with it. Eons of adaptation have programmed them not to sprout until they’ve made it through a winter, lest they open too soon and allow the fragile seedling to be killed by late frost.

You can sow them outside in the fall and let nature take its course, but I’ve found that to have unpredictable results. Sometimes they sprout, sometimes they remain stubbornly inert. It’s hard to plan out a garden when you don’t know what, if anything, will end up growing in a given spot. Besides, planting defenseless seeds runs the risk that robber birds and squirrels will snatch them before they have a chance to grow, ruining your hard work for the sake of a meal.

READ: The startling world of plant intelligence

A different method that I’ve had success with is cold conditioning. I keep the seeds them in a sealed plastic bag in the refrigerator, on a moist paper towel, for a month or two (different species prefer different lengths of time). When the seeds have had enough time in the cold, I take the bag out and tape it to a sunny window.

The clear plastic captures the sun’s heat like a miniature greenhouse, and the seeds wake up from their dormancy. After a few days, fragile shoots start to emerge from the seed cases. Once they’re starting to grow, I take them out and (carefully) transplant them into starter pots.

The advantage of this method is that you can take only the seeds that grow most vigorously. You don’t have to plant the duds that were never going to sprout. It’s like you’re rendering the verdict of evolution, choosing the survivors and discarding the losers.

Some nurseries also sell bare roots. It’s the living root of a plant, dug up and divided from a healthy specimen, shipped to your door wrapped in peat moss. If you bury it in good soil and water, it will resume growing, spreading in the vegetative way and sending out shoots that push upward into light.

Thinking in seasons

Either way, seeds or bare roots, the biggest hurdle with growing perennials is that it takes time. You have to be patient to see the results. At the very least, you have to think at least one growing season ahead, planning and conditioning seeds over the fall and winter for planting in the spring.

Also, many perennials don’t bloom in their first year. They conserve their strength, building up strong roots, before they spend energy on the showy extravagance of flowers. A gardener’s saying goes, “The first year they sleep, the second year they creep, and the third year they leap.”

So, really, you have to plan two years ahead. And if something doesn’t do well, if it withers and dies in the first year, it leaves a hole in your garden that takes more years of patient planning to fill.

This means that, to shepherd a plant from seed to sprout to flower, you have to get used to slowing down and thinking in seasons. The pulse of winter’s freeze, spring’s bloom, summer’s flush and autumn’s chill, to a plant, is like a single day to a human. Each year is just a single line written in the story of a garden.

But that’s no bad thing. In fact, it’s a welcome antidote to modern life.

The world we live in conditions us to expect convenience, speed, instant gratification. We scroll through headlines that whip around the globe at the speed of social media. We impulse-buy what we want with a single click and pay extra for next-day shipping. We obsessively hang on the scandals and outrage-bait of the day, most of which are as ephemeral as passing clouds.

When we indulge these habits, we foster a temporal nearsightedness. The more we focus on the short term, the less capable we are of looking at what lies ahead. The future grows hazy; it seems more remote, less important.

By contrast, when you plant a seed, you get used to thinking about the future. As you shepherd plants through their life cycle, you naturally fall into sync with their seasonal rhythms. You learn how to think like a plant, hunkering down and enduring the cold times while preparing for a better future. By doing this, I find, I’m more able to maintain tranquility in an unpredictable world. The turbulence of the news cycle is like winter frost or March rainstorms. You know that these things too shall pass, and sunny days will come again.

DAYLIGHT ATHEISM—Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...

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