Gardening as a Practice of (Self)Care

There is something special about immersing your fingers in the soil – something grounding and connecting to the essence of all life, to the earth and to ourselves; something primal and delicate at the same time. Gardening can be compared to the mindfulness practice — as we tend to the garden we tend to ourselves — we learn to be in the present moment, observe the textures, colors, shapes, sounds and smells, let go of control. In return, gardening presents an array of therapeutic benefits — mental, physical, social and can boost mood and creativity — which we set out to uncover in our second chapter 'The Practise of Gardening'.

As a city dweller, I found gardening intimidating at first. Curious about those therapeutic benefits, I decided to take a stab at it. And as I was looking at my newly acquired plants crowded in a balcony in need of tending and repotting, I started letting go of control by repeating the traditional Zen adage "you gather more flowers with an open hand than a closed fist”. Tackling each plant, tree and herb one by one, I was able to give in to the flow as if the knowledge has been inside of me already, passed through generations, and dating back to the ancestors who lived in much closer proximity to Mother Earth than we nowadays do.

Garden Therapy
“In forty years of medical practice,” the great neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote, “I have found only two types of non-pharmaceutical ‘therapy’ to be vitally important for patients…: music and gardens.”

Over the past decade, many people have become aware of the positive benefits of human interaction with plants and gardens. The recent surge of interest has also been accelerated by the covid pandemic-imposed social isolation and restriction of movement which nudged many to take up gardening as a way to animate life in confinement at home. This time also brought trends such as Cottagecore, Farmcore and Countrycore into the mainstream — an aesthetic inspired by a romanticized interpretation of country life, centred around ideas of more simple life and harmony with nature.

But the history of gardens as a place to restore one’s wellbeing date as far back as 2000 BC in Mesopotamia where lush agricultural plots that lay in the fertile river valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers provided inspiration for the first designed gardens in this otherwise very arid landscape. Around 500 BC, the Persians began creating gardens to please all of the senses simultaneously by combining beauty, fragrance, music (water) and cooling temperatures in the garden. In the 1100’s St. Bernard described the benefits of a hospice garden at a monastery in Clairvaux, France, referring to the therapeutic benefits of privacy, green plants, birdsong, and fragrance.

According to the American Horticultural Therapy Association, the benefits of involvement in horticultural activities and exposure to nature can be seen in cognitive, psychological, social, and physical realms and research continues to reveal these connections across many groups of people. There has been a rise in healing gardens that support people-plant interactions and human wellbeing. Key clinical studies on the therapeutic effects of gardening have been already published in the 80’s, 90’s and early aughts.

The following benefits of gardening to our wellbeing have been reported in clinical studies:

  • Cognitive Benefits such as enhanced cognitive functioning, stimulation of memory, improved concentration, goal achievement and attentional capacity.
  • Psychological Benefits include improved quality of life, mood and sense of wellbeing, increased self-esteem, sense of stability and sense of control, reduced stress, decreased anxiety, alleviation of depression, improved sense of personal worth, feelings of calm and relaxation, personal satisfaction, sense of pride and accomplishment.
  • Physical Benefits include improved immune response, decreased heart rate, improved fine and gross motor skills and eye-hand coordination.
  • Social Benefits include increased social integration, healthier patterns of social functioning, and improved group cohesiveness.

Gardening & Creativity

Other studies and real-life examples point to gardens and gardening as a way to enhance creativity. When we spend time in nature and in our garden, we enter a calm state of mind which evokes a different way of thinking by making us more curious, able to form new ideas, open to problem-solving as well as becoming more flexible in our ways of thinking – all skills which characterise the ability of being creative. Nature also helps us to recharge our directed-attention, a state of mind which is needed when analysing and further developing ideas – something which is also very important in the creative process. 'Digging Deep: Unearthing Your Creative Roots Through Gardening' by Fran Sorin was one of the first books to explore the connection between gardening and creativity. Part motivational narrative and part garden design advisory, this book puts forth "tools for creative awakening" through gardening.

Artists and creatives have noticed this connection for centuries by retreating to natural environments to restore or even find their creative purpose and inspiration. From Thoreau's Walden to Monet's enchanting garden scenes and Georgia O'Keeffe's New Mexico landscapes. It was in a garden bed that Virginia Woolf arrived at her exquisite epiphany about what it takes to be an artist. For poet Ross Gay, time spent in the garden is “an exercise in supreme attentiveness.”

In his book, I Work Like a Gardener: Joan Miró on Art, Motionless Movement, and the Proper Pace of Creative Labor, the visionary artist reflects on his creative process:

"I work like a gardener… Things come slowly… Things follow their natural course. They grow, they ripen. I must graft. I must water… Ripening goes on in my mind. So I’m always working at a great many things at the same time."

The Practice of Care

Care for something requires our full attention and as our focus span has shortened significantly and the busyness of daily life is taking a toll on our stress levels, taking care for a single plant or a garden can become a rare moment to de-stress and de-compress. Gardening is one of those wonderful practices that contribute to the personal, collective and planetary wellbeing all at once. It allows us to slow down, refocus and let go as we connect and tend to the Earth. At the same time, it requires humility and surrender to the intricate plant networks and plant life that are not always in our control. Unsurprisingly, humility comes from humilis — Latin for low, of the earth.

Furthermore, there is a rich, dark material in a “good black soil” called humus which provides an even deeper bonding connection to Mother Earth, on a molecular level. As Robin Wall Kimmer explains in the book ‘Braiding Sweetgrass’: “The smell of humus exerts a physiological effect on humans. Breathing in the scent of Mother Earth stimulates the release of the hormone oxytocin, the same chemical that promotes bonding between mother and child”. ‘Humans’ and ‘Humus’ share the same etymology of being ‘from and for the earth’, their roots intertwined with ‘Humble’, which is how one feels when this reciprocity with Mother Earth is experienced.

This connects us back to gardening as a practice of care for the planetary wellbeing with its wide range of benefits from engaging with, supporting and enhancing nature in urban spaces to responsible farming and use of land — such as climate change mitigation, wildlife conservation, air quality improvements and water management processes. Gardening, even on a small scale becomes a conduit for living a more conscious, connected and creative life.

Modern Herbalist by The Practise

At The Practise we work closely with the healing and therapeutic effects of plants through Modern Herbalist — our curated selection of new generation of CBD and adaptogenic plant medicines. Together with gardening, plant medicine is one of the most approachable ways to experience the deep intrinsic connections with nature while taking care of our wellbeing. We carefully select brands and people who grow their plants in ethical, organic and regenerative ways, contributing not only to the wellbeing of those who will consume these tinctures, oils, infusions and salves but also restoring the natural ecosystems and thus contributing to the wellbeing of our planet.

For the curious, a little delight from time to time.

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