Preserving the Harvest or Preserving My Sanity?

I have been in and out of canning jars for three days now, trying in turns to preserve the harvest, fulfil my writing deadlines, manage my family’s outrageous expectations of motherhood, and to do all of this without losing my ever-living mind.

Oh, and there’s something else…What was it?….Ah yes.  The garden.  I actually have to tend to it in order to keep this three-ring Sisyphean circus going.  No problem.  I’ll just take care of that at 4am in between coffee and a good cry.


The pantry is slowly filling up, but so much yet to do before the season ends.


I share the above not for sympathy, but because you might be in the same leaky boat; and when the words “Something’s gotta give” come out of your mouth more than six times in a day, but the only thing that’s giving is the tenuous grip upon your sanity, the last thing you need is me telling you how fabulous 45 quarts of tomatoes look sitting next to a farm-to-table meal I whipped up whilst writing a thousand words on dry soil conditions.

Unfortunately, we rarely see the cost of what it took to get that farm to the table (in my case, $50 of takeaway Thai food the night before). Our social media-driven world thirsts for gorgeous Result: smiling kids, clinking glasses, panoramic views and thinly-veiled one up-manship.

It is not enough to merely experience a moment – that moment must be shaped into premium content. Process is acceptable, but should be arranged in five neat steps and tied in rustic jute – there is no place at this farm-to-table for the exhausted.


Blessing or curse? When you’re feeling behind it can be both.


This is of course inconvenient, because we are, most of us, exhausted.  Think how many times you’ve asked a friend how they’re doing; how they’ve replied “Busy”; and how you’ve nodded with the empathy of the damned only to find yourself in the same exchange two months later.

Process is acceptable, but should be arranged in five neat steps and tied in rustic jute – there is no place at this farm-to-table for the exhausted.

So, going back to my previous assertion that something’s got to give, and the assumption that most of us get so tied up in our own handmade knots that we don’t know which string to pull, it’s time to start tugging gently on one or two ends.  It’s time to step back.

I’ll go first, and in order to do so, I ask you to indulge me in a story.

Once upon a time…

About fifteen years ago when Youth and Naiveté had persuaded me I was inventing things like pickling, yogurt making and breast-feeding the way that only Youth and Naiveté can persuade, I met an older woman on a garden tour.

Her garden had three edible plants – a tomato, a pepper and a large stand of basil; and yet her ornamental beds stretched for hundreds of yards.  How someone could garden with such passion, yet overlook the opportunity to fill plates and pantry with homegrown produce completely baffled me.

She loved her flowers and asked what I was growing. And as I babbled on about flowers and edibles, she stopped me with, “Do you can?”

I replied proudly in the affirmative. Not only did I can, but I pickled and froze and dehydrated and ketchuped. And I kept track of it all in a little ledger (which was what we all did before social media beckoned so seductively).

“Oh honey, I used to do all that stuff too,” she said dismissively, and added “You’ll learn.”

Well, I had no intention of ‘learning,’ unless it was yet another way I could stay up until one-thirty in the morning shredding my endocrine system upon the altar of Domesticity.  Youth and Naiveté were quite firmly in charge – whispering ever in my ear – and I ashamedly assumed that my elder was not my better.

Well, I was wrong. I did not possess a houseful of adult relatives or a vast network of stay-at-home friends that would have naturally accompanied some of these tasks 70 years ago.  I did however possess two tiny children, a house and garden that needed a complete renovation, and a dimwitted desire to prove I could do it all.

A few short years later the endocrine system was thoroughly and expertly shredded (I didn’t do anything by halves), and I found myself forced to take a few steps back.  Several actually.

Stepping back, taking stock.

The process taught me a valuable lesson:  just because I could do something, didn’t mean I should.  I had to start saying no. An even shorter year later I was taught another valuable lesson: that my raging Type A personality required a thorough check up every year.

And it looks like I’m due for my annual inspection.

Is all this to say that we shouldn’t can the tomatoes, re-paint the living room or write the novel?  No. Not at all.

Instead I believe that we need to find and fight for what is bringing our families and ourselves a quiet, centered contentment, and say no to the rest of the noise.  That might mean one less organization to join or one less project to start or one high-stress promotion to refuse.


Creativity happens when the mind and body have time to contemplate space – to think and to plan. Losing those quiet moments might make me technically more productive, but far less creative. And in the end, less content. (Photo: Atlanta, GA)


In simple garden terms it could mean we forget about growing flea-beetle infested eggplants, and focus instead on the ease of tomatoes, the peppers, and the…well, what do you know….the basil. Farmer’s markets aren’t just for hipsters you know.

Or it could mean that we focus more on our vegetable garden and the harvest to the exclusion of other things.  These choices are extremely personal and based upon many factors.

Some people will respect your self-awareness and some will not.  Some have too much invested in showing the rest of the world they’re doing everything and keeping it together to not feel threatened by you choosing another way. You’re not going to change their minds – or their verdicts on how industrious you should be. Just ignore their tight, ever-fixed smiles and pray for their cortisol levels.

We live in a frighteningly busy world, and it’s not going to hand us a gift-wrapped break.  We’ve got to take that break for ourselves – and defend it. – MW




By | 2018-02-20T20:40:45+00:00 September 8th, 2017|

About the Author:

Marianne is the mother of two, wife of one and the voice of The Small Town Gardener. She gardens and writes from her home in the scenic (and exceptionally convenient) heart of Virginia's wine country.


  1. barongwyn September 8, 2017 at 6:02 pm - Reply

    This applies to a great deal more than plants and dirt. Just saying.

    • Marianne Willburn September 11, 2017 at 1:40 pm - Reply

      Very much so. 🙂

  2. dineshvs30 September 9, 2017 at 2:11 am - Reply

    I always look forward to your posts.

    • Marianne Willburn September 11, 2017 at 1:39 pm - Reply

      Thank you!

  3. curioussteph September 9, 2017 at 1:55 pm - Reply

    You have used one of my favorite phrases that lead to sanity, Marianne. “Just because I can, it doesn’t mean I should”. Giving yourself the gift of determining what matters to you, not to your image or even those around you. A question I’ve come up with (as I am now reaching semi-old lady status) when I’m getting a bit overstretched is “what am I trying to prove to who and why?” with its important followup of “do they know or care?”. Good luck, it is the crazed garden season.

    • Marianne Willburn September 11, 2017 at 1:39 pm - Reply

      Absolutely! Love the ‘do they know or care?’ – LOL

  4. willisjw September 28, 2017 at 5:31 pm - Reply

    Good thoughts Marianne. We too canned in our early days, and my son did some canning this year. But more often than not we quarter the tomatoes and freeze them or cook them down to sauce and then freeze them. The blueberries are little frozen marbles now in the freezer and we use them all year long. I should comment on the eggplants. We grew the seedling eggplants transplanted to the garden and large Thanksgiving Farm purchased plants side by side. The TF plants are still yielding wonderfully as they have all year long, whereas we got just a few out of the seedlings which were shredded by flea beetles. It was a very good lesson for the future.

    • Marianne Willburn September 29, 2017 at 12:30 pm - Reply

      That is GREAT to know John. Gives me new hope, and I guess, new packets of expensive eggplant seeds to add to next year’s seed exchange! I will plan on this myself.

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