Many years ago, not long after gardening came to me* and stuck, I read a statistic that said something to the effect that just looking at a plant lowers our heart rate. This was so long ago now that I no longer recall the exact phrasing, nor where I read it, or why. Regardless, it was the first time I made a concrete, conscious connection between the act of gardening and the ways in which it could and did benefit me, the gardener.
Years later, and countless hours spent in various gardens of my making, I have never bothered to look further into current research for examples of how gardening may be enhancing my health, brain, body, and overall wellbeing. I just know intuitively that it is, and that’s really all of the proof that I need. However, as my relationship to gardening has evolved and grown, so have the benefits that I have felt and acknowledged. I suspect that with time, I will become aware of and experience new benefits. For now, the following is a brief musing on the gains I have gleaned so far:
On Growing Food
Growing food transforms us into producers — something we desperately need in a passive consumer culture where we have become an audience watching life rather than producers making it. Growing food provides a connection to and an understanding of where our food comes from. It schools us in what food looks like when it comes out of the ground or off of the vine, with all of its shapes, flaws, beauty, and flavor. The work involved in growing our own food provides first-hand knowledge of the labour that goes into growing it and teaches us not to take it or the work that farmers do for granted. It transforms our expectations and turns us into educated consumers who know the value of good, well-grown produce. It challenges us not to accept lesser quality food and lesser quality growing practices. Growing food makes us stronger and more resilient. It gives us pride of self-relience. It satiates the worry that should the Zombie Apocalypse come, we may just be able to make it out alive.
In growing countless plants and learning about their biology I have come to the knowledge that as food, plants are not benign. Every plant can have some action on the body, and in turn, eating is medicine.
We all come to gardening for different reasons, and while the topic is most often plunked in with and categorized as style and design, it doesn’t have to be about either. Much of my own gardening practice is about food production, using plant materials for dyes and other purposes, and feeding pollinators, all of which favour conditions that can sometimes work against aesthetic appeal, at least in the most culturally acceptable forms. However, I think that creativity comes down to self-expression and and a heightened awareness or way of experiencing that can be found and nurtured in unlikely ways. The more mundane aspects of gardening can be creative acts, even when our attentions are not drawn to cultivating a particular aesthetic. I also find that the plants themselves can inspire creativity and that as we live with them, we can’t help but begin to look at them more closely. Looking gives way to seeing, and seeing alters the way we perceive the world as a whole, which is in itself a form of creativity.
It’s hard not to notice the processes and cycles of things when we’re firmly embedded within them. Being a gardener has caused me to noticed weather patterns and how the climate shifts and changes from year to year. I quickly gave up the false notion that gardening is a single, repeated act and that every year is predictable and the same. Within that I also started to understand which patterns could be expected and what it means when they shift. That alone has changed how I think about and respond to climate change.
On Connecting to the Earth
I didn’t start gardening for political or environmental reasons, but along the way, gardening has pushed me to reconsider my place in the world and the effect of my actions therein. In the beginning, most of the positive choices I made, whether to avoid using pesticides or plant a drought tolerant perennial, were made passively — I didn’t want to touch chemicals and I probably thought the flowers were pretty. How I made my choices as a gardener were a reflection of the passive choices I made in other areas of my life: using Mr. Clean to wash the floor because everybody else did, and eating unhealthy foods because that’s just how I was raised. But slowly, with time and experience I began to see little ecosystems form around specific plants. I saw insects and other living things I had never noticed before, and in seeing, I became aware of their interconnectedness. I started to perceive them — all of them — as a necessity instead of a nuisance. I came to understand the meaning of the phrase, “everything is everything.” Everything I do counts. I saw first-hand that using a spray, even an organic one, came with potential side effects to the little ecosystems I was creating. I dropped even the homemade, organic sprays when my appreciation and respect for life in the garden became more important than the so-called war I was in with the “bad” insects. And then I started to consciously change the language I used to reflect that change. I’m still working on it. The us versus them war paradigm is strong in our culture and can be a difficult mindset to drop.
Over the years there was loss in the garden. Unpredictable events happened that were beyond my control. I sometimes wonder if the interplay of life and death in the garden acts as a safe, less painful precursor to the ultimate losses we will experience elsewhere in our lives. What I know for certain is that these experiences have put me closer in touch with my own need for control and my resistance to my own vulnerability. Things fall apart. My life will end and all of this will still be here when I am gone. With that realization comes a heightened sense of responsibility for and to this little patch of land that I cultivate as it connects to the greater patch of land that is the earth. I have a shared, collective stewardship to my surroundings that reaches beyond the here and now. What I do here can’t be just about my own ego and personal desires.
On Connecting to the Child Brain and Self
Gardening is work and play combined. It reconnected me to the visceral pleasure in getting my hands dirty and gave me the permission to indulge it. It brought me back to the child-like sense of wonder and discovery about the world that I had bottled up deep in childhood memory and put away for the sophistication and “maturity” of adult life. Gardening brought back the utter delight and surprise in finding a worm poking its squirmy body up through the soil and rekindled the magic I once felt in planting a seed in a cup and watching it sprout. Without knowing it, the garden became my teacher, classroom, and playground all rolled into one.
Somehow, despite my resistance, the garden is continuously working to usher forth my maturation. It always seems to teach me exactly what I need to learn, exactly when I need it. Its struggles and accomplishments show me who I am and what I am made of. It is a place where I can just BE and allow the weight of the world to dislodge from my body, right down to my bones. No matter what goes on in my life and no matter how off-balanced and alienated I may feel, stepping into the garden brings me back to centre, back to myself, and back to that sense of connectedness to nature, the processes of life, and the greater world beyond that we all have inside of us.
I wasn’t looking for it or asking for it, but gardening reconnected me to a part of my being that I didn’t know was lost. And every time I smell the first tomato of summer or gently pat the earth down around the roots of a newly planted seedling, it brings it back over and over again so I can never again forget, never again disconnect.