How I Picked Up a Spade and Became a Writer

Coco smiling with kimby Kimberly Mayer

The year was 2000. The end of the second millennium, the beginning of the third. A recent transplant from Philadelphia to Seattle, one of the first things I did in my new land was enroll in The Master Gardener Program. King County is where the international program originated in 1973, and to me it would be like going to High Mass at The Vatican.

Then, for a reason I would understand later, I went into the program like an investigative reporter. I wrote my way through. This is the story of how the Master Gardener Program ended, and I kept going with my writing.

Writing, like gardening, is mainly a matter of just showing up. We start where we are and describe what surrounds us. Writing too grows from a seed, a prompt. A little germ of an idea. Writing or gardening, we cover a little ground at a time and move on. Chip away.

I adopted the habit of writing first thing in the morning. In this way it is easy to see each day as new material. My dog takes her position by the side of my chair. I have been doing this practice for a number of years now and I am on my third writing dog. I sit where the light can come over my right shoulder, not to be shadowed by the hand on the page. Each dog has always known which hand is for writing and which hand might be free for petting, and she always takes that side.

My dog comes through for me in this endeavor just as she keeps me company in gardening. But what must she sense when I’m writing? Sitting beside me, looking out, this has become her window on the world too. She is so still, barely blinking, all-observing. I follow her gaze out the window and decide that it is movement that catches her eye—an animal, a solitary person walking, a bird, a boat. A blowing leaf, a cloud. It is unbelievable how much movement there is in the world when one is still.

The subject of gardening is never far off when I write. It sails right alongside me, in fact. I frequently get up from writing and take a walk, a hike, a stroll. My eyes need to focus on something tangible rather than abstract. Something of color, fragrance, or texture. Leaf, flower, dirt, water. Something real.

A garden is a space to circle around with one’s thoughts. A visit to the garden sharpens the senses, cultivates attentiveness in the beauty of things perfect and imperfect, intentional and serendipitous. The well-being of the plantings becomes inexorably intertwined with my own. 

Plants are full of possibilities—and planting them, imagining them, and tending them is much like growing a manuscript. While watering I can feel my creative energies start to flow. I am merely the conduit, the person holding the hose. Time spent in the garden is how I get going in writing now.

Clearing brush clears my head.

The deeper I go in gardening or writing, the more parallels I find between the two. I am also struck by the number of gardeners who write, or writers who garden. Perhaps they too are thinking on their feet, praying on their knees. Putting their thoughts in order as they dig and plant. Finding the right words as they turn soil over. Editing as they deadhead, weed, thin and divide. Harvesting their life experiences and coming to conclusions as they stake, prune, and clean up.

The very process of writing out an experience can change the nature of the experience in extraordinary ways. Too, it can change us. We allow ourselves to transcend our own lives, to look with an objectivity and awareness that we might not have been capable of at the time, in the thick of things. Writing, like gardening, turns all of life’s materials into rich compost with time.

In my case a gardening memoir came of it. The Master Gardener Program’s course outline became my chapter headings. And in August, 2009 it took first place in Non-fiction/Memoir at the PNWA Literary Contest.

It isn’t every day I can find an ending like that. 

note: much of this material is excerpted from my manuscript, Dirt: The Making of a Master Gardener.

Kimberly Mayer received a B.A. from Emerson College, Boston, and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Goddard College. Her work has been published on This I Believe (National Public Radio), and in Pitkin Review and Minerva Rising literary Journals. Living on San Juan Island, she blogs on remodeling a house, a life, at

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