The Self-Taught Gardener: Finding tranquility

When I see these flowers, I cannot help but see the world filled with a beauty that warrants our protection.

In a week when the West is on fire, just weeks after the South has been beleaguered by hurricanes, and in an era when the entire country seems to be reeling from moment to moment politically, I often struggle to force myself to read the news. As I read the story this morning in The New York Times about the Trump administration’s plan to abandon all the Obama-era EPA standards, I fear I will become one of those people who lament that newspapers never print good news. I resist the temptation to just sigh and think that the world is all darkness and hopelessness, not only for those living in Northern California or sifting through the waste in Puerto Rico and Houston, but also for those of us who worry about where we are heading as a nation. It is at moments like these that I turn to something that allows me to see beauty in the world around us and, although I wrote about water lilies just a few weeks ago, I come back to them this week from a different perspective.

Although not a water lily, the lotus has often been contemplated by scholars and monks.

The last time I wrote about water lilies, I was thinking about them within the context either of a larger garden, such as Filoli, which I was visiting, or of a more naturalized setting. Today, I am thinking simply about the beauty of their flowers. These flowers are something into which we can gaze deeply, like into the eyes of a lover, that somehow allow us to feel hope and to see the world around us more brightly. When I see these flowers, as I saw a variety of them in full bloom during my visit last month to the Chicago Botanic Garden on an unseasonably hot weekend, I cannot help but see the world filled with a beauty that warrants our protection, and that, even more, warrants our awe for the majesty of its artfulness.

Some water lilies are hardy as far north as Zone 4, and can simply overwinter in ponds and deep-water environments.

In the same way that hurricanes and wildfires humble us, water lilies, ranging from hardy varieties that can overwinter outdoors in Chicago to exotic tropical varieties that explode with so much color that they seem to be emerging from a 1950s Technicolor musical, help us to see what is larger and more powerful than we are. At the same time, they show us what we should work to protect. I suppose a more cynical part of me might celebrate the fact that global warming could make these tropical varieties easier to grow in Zone 5 (which, if coal emissions are not managed, might be reclassified at some point as Zone 10), but having to overwinter the roots of these precious varieties in buckets of water in our basements in colder climates is part of what helps us value these flowers. Just like children and aging parents, we love the things that require us to care for and coddle them.

Other water lilies are tropical and require overwintering in a protected place, with their roots submerged in water.

And just like gazing into the visage of the ones we love most, staring into these flowers and seeing their beauty provides us with the faith to fight for the things in which we believe.


A gardener grows through observation, experimentation, and learning from the failures, triumphs, and hard work of oneself and others. In this sense, all gardeners are self-taught, while at the same time intrinsically connected to a tradition and a community that finds satisfaction through working the soil and sharing their experiences with one another. This column explores those relationships and how we learn about the world around us from plants and our fellow gardeners.