It’s no secret to anyone who’s ever spent a sunny afternoon digging in the dirt: gardening is good therapy. Or maybe it’s closer to psychiatry: studies have shown that certain soil bacteria act much like a natural antidepressant—stimulating serotonin production on those exposed to it through inhalation or physical contact. No wonder we’re happier and more relaxed after a day in the garden.
Personal experience corroborates these scientific claims and tells me that there is nothing an hour in the garden won’t have me feeling better about. Whether or not it’s because of a bacteria-induced reverie, I know there’s something about being outside, about putting my hands in the earth, about the fresh air and the sweet smell of soil that fuels healing. I know that gardening makes me feel good: productive, yet relaxed; creative, yet focused. I know I can easily lose time in the garden, puttering, and feel like I’ve had a great day. I slow down in the garden. I pay attention. I am mindful in the way I strive to be—and rarely manage—during the more routine aspects of, say, childcare or work.
My mother, a woman to whom I owe many of my habits and interests—including gardening—has always been full of energy (I’d say to a fault except that she directs her vitality so helpfully. She’s the type who can’t help but unload your dishwasher or wipe down your counters while you talk; stillness is foreign to her). I suspect her love of gardening may have started as way of being productive while outdoors, of trying to wrest control from the forest that constantly attempted to reclaim our property. It was the beauty of plants and the feeling of a day well spent, however, that would eventually give the garden a prime place in her heart. The love of gardening is just one of the many gifts my mom has given me, of course, though one that continues to give me so much.
My mom was diagnosed with cancer just over two years ago. In that time, she has shrunk before my eyes. Physically, of course, but her presence also seems to take up less space in a room. She’s quieter. Less sunny. She is still for long periods of time. Pain will do that to a person.
When she is feeling well enough, she steps into the garden. Maybe she just clips some sweet peas or asks my dad to move a shrub, but the lift in her mood is palpable. I hear triumph in her voice on garden days.
Gardening requires optimism. You have to look forward with hope and see past the weeds and the voracious insects to the season of your favourite rose or the first snap peas. You have to persevere. I don’t know whether it’s because of her optimism that she’s a gardener, or because of her garden she’s an optimist, but my mom has been able to hold fast to her positive outlook despite six surgeries, 21 radiation treatments, and many rounds of chemo.
My wish is that no one has to have their spirit tested like she has, but I know that’s unrealistic. So I’ll wish, instead, that everyone has a garden—literal or metaphorical—they can turn to when their hearts are battered.
And if you haven’t discovered the mood-altering qualities of the garden yet, there is perhaps no better time than life’s inevitable low points to step outside, breathe deeply, slow down, and dig in.
Whether our friendly neighbourhood soil bacteria are contributing factors or not, the garden can offer many gifts, from the short term—increased happiness, reduced stress, and perhaps an incredible crop of tomatoes—to the long. Looking at my mom, who has nurtured her beloveds like she’s nurtured her gardens, I’d say a lifetime’s practice might increase resilience, positivity, and strength. And no matter our battles—big or small—we could all use a little more of that.
A version of this article was originally published in the Summer 2018 issue of Edible Vancouver and Wine Country under the title Garden Therapy. I’m thrilled to be able to provide the happiest of updates: my mom has now been cancer-free for some time now, and is back (in the garden and in all aspects of life) in full force. One of the toughest things about the current COVID-19 pandemic is being separated from her and my dad. I’m grateful, however, that they have their garden as a sanctuary during this uncertain time.
You can read more about my mom and her influence on my life as a gardener, in Roots of a Gardener, the first post I wrote on Heavy Petal, way back in 2005.