We know the physical benefits of gardening: Getting exercise, catching up on Vitamin D, building up flexibility and participating in a form of aerobic activity are among the physical advantages gardeners achieve. However, the mental values of gardening are of equal importance.
Ask any serious gardener why they garden and you will find that many of us garden because it reduces the stress in our lives — and ours is an increasingly stressful world. A friend of mine recently wrote to me that when she divorced, “I called gardening my dirt therapy. It allowed me to physically take out my anger and frustration while it also gave me a quiet, introspective time to reflect and replay problems and issues.”
By 2045, it’s estimated that 70 percent of the world’s population will reside in cities, thereby cutting us off from the joys of digging in the soil. Fortunately, this trend is forecast to be slower in the mountain communities of North Carolina, so we should continue to have access to soil in the coming decades.
To garden is a bit like raising children, I think. We put the plants in the ground as toddlers and coddle them at least through that first year. Some perennials pass quickly into the teenage years, where they can become incredibly gawky teenagers: Plants flop, rose canes grow at different rates. And then, suddenly, as if by magic, the plants have matured into their adult form — and in the process, they have become our grown-up children.
All this is to say that when we garden for a long time, we are tending to family. My windmill palm, Trachycarpus fortunei, began life as a 1-foot high specimen; today it towers over the garden at 18 feet. Of course, I regard this palm as a member of my family.
So, to garden is to nurture, to think of the comfort of others. In turn, according to several studies, this gives us a calmer feeling, thereby reducing stress. We have entered a world that belongs to us — this is in other words our secret garden.
Gardening is not only a physical endeavor but it is also an intellectual one as well. Gardeners become knowledgeable about their plants. We gradually get to know the likes and dislikes of certain plants: why do crinums resent having their fronds cut back in autumn? Why can we cut back some plants in an effort to keep them manageable while it’s disastrous if we cut back the Montauk daisy, Nipponanthemum nipponicum, mid-season? Why do some roses flourish while others still struggle on one cane?
As another friend commented, “Gardening to me is also like friendships. The plants need to be planted well and nurtured a bit, some needing more attention than others.” To garden is to fight against loneliness.
At first when we start a garden, we’re anxious to have the perennials perform for us. They are the actors while we’re the audience. As the years go by, the relationship subtly changes: They are no longer the actors but have become our children. We welcome them back in the spring, happy that they’ve woken up from their long nap. We struggle with them when rain is scarce or there is too much rain. The soil becomes our fetish: Is it well draining? Is it providing the necessary pH and nutrients? I would submit that in the process of tending to the garden, the plants have adopted us.
Numerous studies have demonstrated the healthy mental effects gardening casts on us. So, when you are tending to your children, fussing at the wildlife that threatens them, realize that the garden is not only helping you physically but is also giving you great mental gifts.
Another friend recently told me that, “My garden is my palette. It allows me to create and extend my living area. It connects me to the seasons and makes me think that I am in the autumn of my life — and no matter what, spring will come.”