Practicing Subtraction (In a World That Loves Addition)

Practicing Subtraction (In a World That Loves Addition) February 5, 2019


As a gardener, I am currently in a season of subtraction.


We moved to this old farmhouse six years ago, and six years ago we planted an enormous vegetable garden.

Raised beds.

A white picket fence.

An arbor covered in pale pink ‘New Dawn’ roses.

But a few months ago, we tore out the garden to make way for a parking lot.

Well, not exactly a parking lot, but we needed a new driveway and a new place for parking our cars, and the vegetable garden had to go. My children, the same children who only ever showed an interest in the garden for two weeks in June when the strawberries were ripe, were nonetheless shocked and horrified. The looks I observed on their faces when I broke the news of our plans suggested I was not the mother they knew, and the only plausible explanation must involve alien abduction, evil robots, or a personality-altering virus.

I tried in vain to explain that nothing lasts forever.

All good things must come to an end.

But I am a writer, and my use of such cliches told them everything they needed to know: I was clearly not myself.


Subtraction never comes easily to a gardener.

Our mantra is that the best time to plant anything (whether tree, bush, or flower) was at least ten years ago. In the race to see a new plant established, we always feel as if we’re behind. Only the most disciplined among us take their time, feeling out the space, and observing the movements of the sun over the course of at least a year. The rest of us throw out trees and new flower beds and always way too many tomato plants as if gardening were a sprint and every other gardener had already crossed the finish line.

When the vegetable garden first came out, I told myself it would be wonderful to focus only on the flower garden this summer.

I might actually stay on top of the weeds!

But as the seed catalogs rolled in, and especially as I perused the look book of trees from Bower and Branch (oh, how I love to plant trees), I felt an almost desperate urge to carve out new planting space.

Subtraction is rarely comfortable, but I am finding it even harder than I thought it would be to sit with less without rushing in to fill the emptiness.

Winter is a season of less. It is a fruitful season of emptiness. But who among us doesn’t long for the more of spring?


Right now, as a gardener, I am being invited into a season of subtraction. I know this less will bear fruit down the line (isn’t that the principle behind pruning?). But whether or not we garden, the invitation to live with less is an invitation made to each one of us at different points in our lives.

Sometimes subtraction happens painfully. We grit our teeth and hold on tighter.

Sometimes subtraction happens easily. It feels like freedom. It feels like relief.

But no matter how it happens, sticking with the process is almost always harder than we thought. Feeling hunger without rushing to the refrigerator isn’t easy, and it seems that even subtraction takes practice.

Here is what’s helping me today: a box with a lid.

I am not throwing those seed and plant catalogs away. I am tucking them in a box and tucking the box in a closet. I know the box is there and that I will pull it out again one day.

It is as hopeful as a small seed.

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