Gardening As Therapy

by The English Lady

March 13, 2019
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There are those of us “mud and Wellington boots” gardeners that experience tremendous joy and utter despair while indulging in this gardening “pastime”.  And there are moments, albeit infrequently, when I would happily give it all up and live in an apartment with a Victorian Aspidistra plant. 

Moments such as this happen, like the one I spent last year on my birthday in March, on a overcast morning, when bent double in a biting wind, wrestling with some determined winter debris that vowed to get the best of me. Rain eventually seeped through my clothing, ran down the back of my neck and stopped the struggle. Back inside, I ran my numb fingers under the hot water tap, and contemplated, through a now horizontal deluge, the panoramic view across my meadow that has been too wet to mow and too boggy to walk on since last October.  Through the mist, I could see borders lined with swathes of blackened Echinacea and other wan looking species, everything now leaning at a quarter past the hour.   

Across the pond, a majestic bald eagle sat on the topmost branch of my White Oak, eyeing his lunch scurrying across the field. I was about to rap my knuckles on the window, when I saw the canny rabbit dive into a burrow, just as the eagle swooped. The eagle, knew I was watching and threw me a piercing look; I raised my hand to acknowledge him, saying, “better luck next time, friend.”  

At that precise moment the phone rang and my editor Sue, asked if I would write a article for a newspaper on gardening as therapy …. as a laid-back, appealing pastime that is good for one’s overall well-being.  Timing is everything. Right at that moment, stumped for an answer, I thought on the last hour’s sodden experience in the back forty.  It must have been a long pause as Sue said “Maureen, are you there”? To which I replied, “Sorry Sue, I’m in the middle of a difficult day in the garden. May I call you tomorrow?”    

The next morning, with the unpredictability that is March, dawned with a promise of brilliant sunshine in a sky of cornflower blue.  After a hurried breakfast,  I was back out in the garden. 

In the front border, dry mahogany heads of Sedum Autumn Joy and the beige sticks of last year’s fountain grasses stood out sharply against the brown grass , which was beginning to show small patches of green. And to further buoy my good mood I turned towards the fast-flowing stream where a thrush sang a lively tune under the branches of the maples that whispered in the breeze. 

By mid afternoon, after vigorously cutting down spent perennials, inhaling the fragrance of the awakening earth and feeling so much better about those borders, I picked up the phone still infused with the emotional well-being that comes after being in the garden and said, “Sue, I’ll be happy to write the column.”  

There are plenty of people for whom –“gardening therapy” means merely admiring gardens when it is warm enough to just sit, look, and contemplate. There is, however, a fast-growing muddy army of us for whom a large part of the pleasure of “garden therapy” is in the doing of it. 

Spending our cherished spare time puttering about the garden for enjoyment is a relatively new phenomenon. 

In the past, if you had a piece of land around the home, you raised some chickens, a pig, a goat or a cow, and grew your own fruits and vegetables. Or, if you were rich, you paid others to do it for you. 

Over the last century, broad changes in our society are reflected not only in our lives, but also in the role that the garden plays in those lives.  It’s not just the sunshine and birdsong that, season after season, brings us outside in droves. People are gardening for the joy of it and it is my belief that there is something else going on out there, something much more subtle and important to our lives.  

True gardeners don’t just walk this earth; they connect to it and treat it, as they themselves want to be treated. The spiritual connection to the earth is a way of showing gratitude for the abundant plant life that has been sustaining this earth for thousands of years. From early childhood, I have been at one with the miracle that is Mother Nature, immersed in organically working the land; so grateful for the depth of landscape knowledge that my ancestors passed down to me as far back as the 17th century. Gardening for me was never a list of outdoor housework. The skills that my parents and grandparents taught me on how to tend the garden were to know when moderation and gentle guidance were needed, and when not to interfere.  

In my late teens, I worked alongside a small group of sighted  volunteers, at a school for the blind at Condover Hall, a few miles outside my hometown of Shrewsbury in England.  Several members of the group were recovering alcoholics or emotionally frail, and all had been unemployed for a long time. Under my guidance, they weeded, rebuilt the body of the soil by incorporating loads of aged manure, where they grew healthy vegetables on what had been a derelict part of the land. Eventually, these damaged people began to demonstrate the pleasure these tasks brought them, and along with that pleasure, they exhibited a newfound attitude of hope. One of the volunteers went on to train and work in horticulture and two others to study agriculture. These afflicted people connected with the earth, allowing nature to heal them mind, body and soul.   

All through childhood, Mother, Grandmother and I took walks along the hedgerows in the country lanes around our nursery, I learnt so much from them by looking and listening to gems of lives immersed in horticulture. In May, we gathered Bluebells, using the sap from their stems to make starch for our clothes and I used this sticky substance to glue notes into my schoolbooks. On Friday afternoons after school, we spent a few hours at Uncle Ted’s farm next door to our nursery, where, under Aunt Edith’s supervision, we made Shropshire blue cheese, adding a few Marigold petals, which gave the cheese its yellow color. 

We gathered Pennyroyal and Sage from the herb garden to keep insects from invading our kitchen cupboards, and Passionflower to alleviate the asthma that Grandmother was prone to suffer. 

In October, we picked hazelnuts from the hedgerows, and as children are apt to do, ate too many on the way home, resulting in a stomachache, which Grandmother would treat with arrowroot powder mixed with milk, the mixture heated gently on the stove until it turns into a pudding like consistency, Grandmother’s recipe I still use to this day if I get an upset stomach. I prefer this pudding without any sweetening but a little honey; can be added if you wish.  Arrowroot powder can be purchased from a health food store and is something I always have on hand to make the pudding as a tummy soother when necessary or used in recipes that call for a thickening agent. 

There was always plenty of hard work at the nursery to keep us busy each and every day, but my relatives firmly believed in balance with quiet time to play and relax for them and us.  In today’s fast-paced environment, many ‘dyed in the wool’ gardeners will tell you that their enjoyment in the garden is largely about a much needed sense of quiet personal achievement and is fueled by a desire to leave behind the tensions and responsibilities of this world.  They find it truly grounding to connect with the earth.  So many people seem unable to relax, and many actually fear to put themselves out of earshot of the telephone.  Worse still, they seem determined to make their lives into a competition, so not only do they end up pressing the same buttons and ringing the same bells as everyone else, but must constantly strive to do it better and faster.

“Mud and Wellington boots” gardeners like myself, take a longer-term perspective. We are able to turn away, at least for a time, from that ringing world of ours. We instinctively know there is always another day, another chance to improve on things. We know the only constant on this earth is a plant’s nature to grow, and even the most dismal winter gives way to spring. 

This is true “gardening therapy” with the understanding that we can tend our gardens within the comfort of our natural world and its seasons. Isn’t a great relief to switch off and settle for being less than perfect – to relax, take a deep breath, and take pleasure in what we so lovingly create?  

In the past when I designed gardens and worked the earth, in every garden I was privileged to touch, I found such joy and peace.

The connection between myself and the land around me; the miracle of all that grows, told me that we are but a small part of something so much bigger than ourselves. 

Ask any gardener what he or she feels about gardening and they will say, “The way it makes me feel” and if pressed, they will say that when they have their hands in the soil, they forget all cares and worries. This kind of concentration in Eastern philosophy is called “becoming one with.”.  Gardening is a natural and refreshing way to enhance sensitivity to life.