By William Hageman
Ten years ago, Fran Sorin wrote “Digging Deep: Unearthing Your Creative Roots Through Gardening.” It was one of the first books to explore the connection between gardening and creativity.
A decade later, she has updated the book, and it has been reissued by Braided Worlds. The original book’s precepts still apply: A garden, whether it’s a shelf of potted plants, a little patch of dirt, a neighborhood’s community garden or a vast and formal setup, can transport and transform a person. Just open yourself up and enjoy.
As Sorin says, “Play with dirt. Play with ideas. Play with new projects. Play with possibilities, every single day of your life.”
Sorin, who lives in Pennsylvania, was able to sit down over lunch to talk about her book and the connection between creativity and gardening. Here is an edited transcript of the conversation.
Q: Where does someone start?
A: Use your senses. Get out and visit gardens. Go for nature walks. Go up to a tree and be sensitized to the bark. Touch the tree. Da Vinci, all the great artists used nature to stimulate their senses.
Q: You believe that childhood memories can help a gardener come up with a plan, even if they’ve never gardened before.
A: All of us have nature memories, when we went to camp, our neighborhood when we were kids. Or visions of where we traveled. Something in us tells us what we like, what we don’t like. And with YouTube, there are so many ways to learn. Notate what you like and what you don’t.
Q: Have you been a garden person all your life?
A: No. People tell you how as a child nature was the center of their life. My family was middle class. I had to pull dandelions. We did grow carrots. I remember my mother always cutting flowers and having them in the house. Then, in college (at the University of Chicago), I had a professor, Erika Fromm. … I would water the plants in her office. I used to take bits and pieces of her begonias home. I ended up with 60 plants in my basement apartment. Only in hindsight did I realize that was a garden.
Q: Gardening is one of those things in life that can transport a person. You equate it to music in your youth.
A: I started piano lessons at 5. By the time I was 8 we were living in Rochester, N.Y. My sister played violin. When I was older, after school we’d practice. I was having what (psychologist) Abraham Maslow called peak experiences. I’d start playing pieces, I’d have tears streaming it was so beautiful. You’re at a point where creativity takes place.
Q: And that can also manifest itself in a garden? Beyond creating a pretty space or growing vegetables?
A: There are so many benefits. We say we want to eliminate stress. Your heart, blood pressure, everything is better when you go out in a garden and pull weeds. If you go out and you’re thinking about car pooling and you have your phone, it becomes a task. But just go out, figure a half-hour, I’m just going to pull weeds. You’ll get so much from it.
Q: People have been playing in the dirt for thousands of years. It’s part of us. Why doesn’t everyone just do it?
A: We are so disconnected from nature. There has been this profound impact of technology. And people are afraid to let their kids go out. We spend 90 percent of our time indoors. I saw a recent study of American parents, and the three biggest concerns for their kids were grades, bullying and a lack of connection with nature. There’s nothing like being on your knees, in the soil, digging deep.
Q: What’s your garden like at home?
A: I have a rooftop garden. The front garden is a perennial garden. I’m big on perennials, big on natural gardens. (The location) is really sunny. In the back I did a raised vegetable garden. I grow only organic, heirloom and open-pollinated things.
Q: It seems gardening is an easy way to express creativity. Then you take the lessons learned and apply them to other facets of your life. What has your garden taught you?
A: Patience, humility, connection, playfulness. There’s that theory, you take one thing and learn everything from it. I think you take nature and you can learn everything from it.
Advice anyone can dig
During a presentation at the recent Chicago Flower & Garden show, Fran Sorin offered her audience ideas and motivation. She was talking about gardening, but her advice can be applied to any creative endeavor.
On individuality: “Let loose. You can learn all the greatest design techniques, I love all those magazines, but don’t copy other people’s styles. You have to develop your own voice. I’m not saying you shouldn’t mimic. You can take pieces.”
On the “experts”: “Trust your instincts. It’s one of the biggest lessons we could learn. You can consult all the experts, get advice. But ultimately the garden should please you. That’s the bottom line.”
On accepting your lot: “I gardened on a half-acre, diamond-shaped, steeply sloped lot (at her Pennsylvania home). It was a b(ASTERISK)(ASTERISK)ch.” Instead of dreaming of a better canvas, Sorin suggests working with what you’ve got: “Embrace what is.”
On anticipating success: “When you design a flower bed, make it bigger than you think you want. Because you will outgrow it.”