Almost eight years ago, I wrote a blog entitled 'Why we garden', where I tried to articulate the reasons behind our love of gardening. Today I am revisiting this topic in the light of the current grim circumstances in which we find ourselves, and looking at how gardening can help us to keep our sanity for those fortunate enough to have a space to grow plants. Just being in the natural environment has a beneficial effect on our minds, as we seem to have an inbuilt deep affiliation with nature (including plants, weather and animals) that is the product of our biological evolution - those of our ancestors who were most in tune with the natural world would have survived the best!
In times of war and natural disasters throughout history, many people have turned to plants and gardens for consolation. Our gardens are a refuge right now and can provide a respite from the scary thoughts and anxieties that are plaguing our minds at the moment. With the rich array of sensory experiences that a garden can provide, we have the opportunity to ground ourselves in the present moment experiences of what we can see, touch, hear, smell and even taste, which can soothe our minds in the midst of turmoil. The visual beauty of flowers, the varied texture of leaves, the singing of birds and the buzzing of insects, the perfume of blooms such as Daphne, heliotrope and Freesia, and the taste of a freshly picked snow pea: these help us focus on the physical world in a mindful way and calm us. As well as savouring these aspects of just being in the garden, when we are actually doing gardening, we can get completely caught up in the activity and lose ourselves in it, forgetting all else, a most useful experience at the moment. After a stint in the garden, we feel much better psychologically.
Gardening gives many of us something to do each day right now, when most other avenues are closed off to us, providing structure and purpose to our lives. It is also an opportunity for physical exercise (that doesn't seem a bore); exposure to sunlight, vital for our vitamin D intake; as well as contact with a bacteria in soil, called Mycobacterium vaccae, which when inhaled whilst digging in the garden, gives gardeners a natural high by triggering levels of serotonin in the brain, elevating mood and decreasing anxiety. Vigorous digging or mattocking can discharge some of our frustrations in a beneficial way, as we prepare a new garden bed or dig out some recalcitrant weed or stump.
Gardening also provides us with some sense of certainty in an uncertain world right now. We know that despite everything, spring is starting to unfold all around us, and will keep on going, no matter what. The seasons will continue their inevitable cycle. As each season ends, then our work for the next one will begin. The rhythms of the natural world continue, and we know that if we plant some seeds, do some pruning or fertilise our plants, tangible results are pretty much likely to happen. In gardening, there is always hope, even if things don't always go exactly according to plan. Gardens give back to us generously for what we put into them, repaying us many times over. And caring for our plants taps into our instinctive mammalian 'tend and befriend' response, unleashing mood-enhancing brain chemicals that help us feel relaxed and happy.
Our gardens always give us something to look forward to, especially at this time of year. There is something new to see each day, a reason to step outside and walk around. The opening of flower buds on bulbs such as bluebells and starflowers, the production of spring vegetables and herbs, the pristine new growth of baby leaves on trees such as Japanese maples: we've assisted all this by time spent working in the garden, giving us a feeling of empowerment, and a sense of control and achievement.
Cut off as we are at the moment from friends and family, and thus from the social side of gardening, plants in our gardens can remind us of those bonds - from the plants we grew as cuttings or seeds given to us by others and from comforting memories of our childhood gardens where we first met plants we still grow. So many of the specimens in my garden have rich memories associated with them, including the gardenias that flowered at my auntie's place every Christmas, the variegated-leaf hydrangea from my grandmother's last home, and abutilons that grew in my mother's flower garden.
It isn't just being in and working in our gardens that provide us with a wonderful distraction. Thinking and daydreaming about our gardens and how we will change and improve them can occupy many hours! The uplifting and transformative powers of a garden as a counter to fear and despair have never been more apparent to me. Though at times I'd love to fast-forward through these next few months, that would mean missing out on the joys of spring, and what gardener would really want to do that?
19 Sep 21
Meet some of the ferns that grow well in Sydney,
A garland of daisies
12 Sep 21
Daisies seem to epitomise spring and there are lots to choose from for Sydney gardens.
05 Sep 21
September sees some beautiful and easy-going shrubs come into bloom in Sydney.
Borage and kin
29 Aug 21
The herb borage has some easily grown relatives.
22 Aug 21
Many plants need rejuvenation after a few years.