The solace of the garden

Sunday, 29 March 2020

Gardenia jasminoides Florida provides welcome scent

It will probably come as no surprise that I have been spending a lot of time in the garden lately. We gardeners must surely be amongst the luckiest people in the world, to be able to escape for a little while to potter outside with our plants to escape the horrors of what is going on at the moment. Whilst we do have to stay informed, I believe that for our own sanity we can't spend every waking moment following news reports. Gardening offers us a way to take time out and be distracted, even if just for a little while, with something positive.

Just being in a garden, and thus feeling a connection with nature, makes us a bit happier. The so-called 'biophilia hypothesis' was popularised by EO Wilson in a book published in 1984. He suggested that human beings have an inbuilt deep affiliation with nature (including plants, weather and animals) that is the product of biological evolution. Additionally, the garden offers us an opportunity to be 'mindful' in so many ways: to be conscious just of what is going on in the present moment in our own current experience, using all our senses to focus on what is happening in our gardens. This practice, originally part of the Buddhist tradition for thousands of years, is a key feature of modern approaches to dealing with anxiety, and I think most of us are feeling deeply worried right now.

Laughing Kookaburra; photo: Mick Roderick, BirdLife Australia

A walk in the garden, no matter how large or small it is, observing what is happening, reminds us instantly that in the natural world, things are going on as they always have. Bees are still industriously gathering nectar and pollen; skinks (and in some favoured gardens, water dragons) still sun themselves on the paving, scuttling away to hide as we approach; birds are still singing in the trees, looking for bugs, and soaring across the sky; frogs still chorus every night. Plants are still growing; spring bulbs are starting to peep up from underground.

Tibouchina multiflora is in full bloom

Flowers are still blooming - in fact this is the most beautiful time of year in the Sydney garden, when we have the confluence of summer plants still going on (such as Pentas, Dahlia, Begonia, various Justicia species, Canna, perennial Cleome and many Salvia), joined by the brilliant autumn blooms of the numerous Plectranthus, Japanese windflowers, Camellia sasanqua, Tibouchina species and lots of others. There is so much to drink in with our eyes. There are lots of lovely fragrances to inhale as well - the sasanquas have a pleasant earthy scent, the sweet vanilla perfume of Heliotrope is in the air, the strange corkscrew flowers of the snail vine (Vigna Caracalla) have a delicious fragrance, and Gardenia still have some lingering blooms.

Tillandsia usneoides in the former garden of my sister Holly in Sydney

We can also indulge our sense of touch mindfully in the garden - so many velvety leaves call out to be fondled; and the strange wiry stems of Spanish moss in Tillandsia usneoides that form an ethereal curtain in my sasanqua trees tickle me each time I walk beneath them. Just touching (and smelling!) compost in my heap induces a strange sense of calm, especially when I can feel in it the warmth of the composting process in action. The perception of a gentle breeze ruffling my hair and the sun warming my skin are also delightful sensations to focus on. The many birds in my garden provide a soundtrack to listen to mindfully as I wander around, as do the insects, if I pay enough attention. Even the sense of taste can be engaged if I nibble on some herbs or other edible plant from the garden! Incidentally, it is fascinating to learn that lately many people have suddenly embraced growing vegetables with great fervour!

Lettuces grow in tubs and can be harvested leaf by leaf

Gardening also provides us with the precious opportunity for exercise and being in the fresh air and sunshine at this time. Working in the garden gives a sense of purpose and a stake in a better future. Taking cuttings of favourite plants to give to my gardening friends seems to give a meaning to that interval of time before I can see any of them again. Sowing seeds keeps me in touch with the inviolable rhythms of the natural world. I found some very old packets of vegetable seeds in a drawer - all way past their use-by dates - but I planted some of them anyway, given veggie seeds are so hard to come by at the moment. Some of them have already come up, giving me that same old thrill that a germinating seed has always done. Nurturing my plants well (much better than I usually do!) gives the reward of seeing them respond gratefully. Even pulling out a bunch of weeds in a garden bed can offer a sense of achievement in a day that is often otherwise pretty unproductive. We can also spend time planning changes to our gardens to make them even better in the future! From now on is the perfect time to move plants around, dig new garden beds, and plant new specimens.

So, please make the very most of your gardens in these difficult times. Here are some other positive things you might consider: