- Author: Margaret J O'Neill
Looking back at my lifelong relationship with gardening, from doing a lot to doing a little, I have been reflecting on why I have always tried to garden or visit gardens no matter where I was. There were many times that my gardening was not successful, or times when I did not even have a garden of my own, but I always gravitated towards plants, and things that were growing. What is it about not only plants, but tending plants, that lures us in? Is it in our biology, in our DNA….an ancestral connection we have to the earth? Is it our love of fresh tomatoes and peaches? I think yes to all of those things, but it is also an activity that soothes the soul. The garden calls to us, needing our care, but also offering something to us in return. Can you hear its call? Sometimes I can't hear my garden through my thoughts of “oh it's so hot outside, or wow that is a lot of weeds I need to pull….or I can't believe I under watered my citrus trees and they died…….and again, wow it's awfully hot outside.” But I have a strategy when I cannot hear my garden calling me, because it is an important call we should take! It's trying to tell me it can help heal what ails me, help me sort out my thoughts on how to tackle a project at work and help clear my brain when I start thinking about to many “what if's.”
Now, I am not talking about those times when I feel super motivated to garden, and I have a clear and specific to-do list. Sometimes I really know what I am going to do and feel motivated to get out there and have a plan! I am talking about those times when I think I might need my garden more than it needs me. Life can be absolutely wonderful and also so, so hard. I have seen some great things happen and have had wonderful life experiences and I have also had deep loss and sadness that I am not sure what to do with. Plants seem to know how to handle this range of joy to sorrow in a way that perhaps only pets and great wide-open spaces can compare to. In your garden you can grow stronger if you know how to listen. Your garden does not need to be huge; it can be containers on the patio, or windowsill herbs; those few plants can still help put you in a better frame of mind.
So here are my tips on learning how to listen to your garden and feel its benefits. While this may seem like common sense, and obvious, I too must remind myself of this sometimes and just go do it! First step of my strategy is just plan to go outside (or to your plants in the windowsill) for at least 5 min, and find something in the garden that needs to be tended to…..again this tip is not for those times that you are on a mission! This is for when you are just mehhh and not sure what to do with yourself. So just walk yourself outside, or to your windowsill, or your patio and just stand in front of your plants and observe. Better yet, set aside at least five minutes every day to look at your plants. Now, step two: become a scientist! Seems like an odd thing to do when you are there for mental health, right? Does that mean being sophisticated, knowledgeable, overly analytical or taking data about what you are doing? No, not really. The heart of science is observing and asking questions and wondering why. So, look at your plants. What are the colors of the leaves, do you see any bugs, how much have they grown since the last time you hung out with them, is your compost pile decaying the way it should, are your plants developing flowers or yellowing? One of my favorite mind clearing activities is to see how many shades of green I can see. Just sort of take it all in and let your mind and eyes wander. Step outside of your thoughts if you can and focus on your senses. What do you see or hear? What does the air feel like and are your plants fragrant? Then pick a task. Is it checking the soil to see if it is dry, or pruning out the dead growth, or checking for pests in your plants, or harvesting seeds or fruits? Just make it something to get yourself engaged in with your plants. I love picking lemons and weeding for mental health and I have a rule when I do those activities. I am a thinker…. I think waaay too much and that is sometimes a great thing and sometimes a real pain. So, my rule about being in the garden to get all those mental health benefits is, no matter how big or small the task is I am doing, focus on my senses and observations. Then after a few minutes of that I let my thoughts come back in slowly and that is when I do some of my best thinking. My grandma would always tell me that “handwork” like sewing or knitting, cooking, or gardening had been the savior of women (but I think it is true for everyone) for centuries. As one gets older and life becomes a more complex tapestry of experiences and challenges, I am beginning to understand what she means. It's that thinking time you have while doing a task that you can be fully engaged with or sort of do without thinking that is so great for your mind and soul, and that takes me back to this idea of slowly letting your thoughts back in while you putter around in the garden. Once you begin that small task I often finds it leads me to other tasks in the garden, I notice something else that needs to be done, or see damage on leaves and investigate what is causing it, or I notice that there is a trail of ants going into my tree and slow down and watch them to see what they are farming so I can decide if it's something I need to manage. That's when you know the garden has sucked you in! It has taken you down a trail of telling you what it needs from you and in that listening you begin to let go of yourself and your stresses and just start to “be.”
Do you love gardening, and feel all of its benefits but want to share your solo experiences with others? Bring your kiddos, parents or partner out into the yard or for a walk in a local park or garden space and do the same thing with them. Start small, with one task (water the pots, or look for pests, or in a public space just walk and look around), make comments about what you observe, point out something that you see and perhaps your few minutes in the garden can turn into something more…..some unplanned time to connect to each other and disconnect from the world. If you don't have a garden right now, what can you do to reap these benefits? Wandering through a local park can yield the same results…..looking for how many colors of green you can see, what type of animals are enjoying the outdoors with you, seeing how they have arranged their plantings and trying to figure out what types of plants are there can all be ways to tune out your thoughts and tune into nature. You can also look for a community garden in your area (contact the Master Gardeners and we can help you find one)! There are many in San Bernardino County, and if your area does not have one then maybe it is time to get one started! Master Gardeners can help guide you on what you need to get that going too! Joining online gardening groups or becoming a part of the Master Gardener program (a group of trained volunteers who actually want to hear all about the topped tree you just saw or the lemons that are getting ripe!) can be great for mental health too! While there are many important things going on in society right now that mindful attention needs to be paid to, it is important for us all to have a place to reset and regroup and talking to people and sharing about gardening is a great way to do that!
Feeling productive is so important for our wellbeing, physical and mental health. When, at the end of the day, we have had a great discussion about gardening with someone, or tended to our plants and gotten our hands dirty we can go to bed with a clearer mind and be ready to face the world (and look forward to facing our garden) again! Towards the end of my grandma's life she would have me put pots of flowers on TV trays so she could “groom” them. It was a small activity, and something that I could have done myself in a few minutes, but that time for her was priceless. She was able to engage in something with her hands, deadhead the flowers and feel pride in her tasks and probably get a chance to reset some of her thoughts as well…getting those mental health benefits I have been talking about. She would always finish her tasks with a smile and have a sort of glow about her that I totally understood as a fellow gardener…..her garden had called, and she had listened….and she was a good listener too!
So if you are at a place in your life where you are just dreaming about the garden you might have one day, that's ok too…start small, have a few house plants, or grow some herbs on your porch and spend time letting your garden heal you while you care for it. If you have a big yard and aspirations of turning those weed patches into a food forest, go out and start small, little by little you can make a huge impact on yourself and your space over time. If you spend your time fighting squirrels and gophers for your garden goodies, step back and do some detective work and contact the Master Gardener helpline. Let us help you trouble shoot and get you headed for success. Have no garden, no place for potted plants and not ready to join a community garden yet? When you feel overwhelmed or need an escape immerse yourself in leaning about plants. They have fascinating lives and all kinds of outer worldly adaptations that could put fiction writing to shame. Or go spend some time in a public garden or green space, observing those colors and seeing what is living in that green space. Even if you have your own garden, spending time in another garden can be rewarding because you are not thinking about your to do list when you look around!