Green Thumbs

Gardening is not my superpower. As a young adult, I was known for the speed with which I killed my houseplants. When my husband and I moved from Washington, DC to Amsterdam, 30 years ago, I saw it as a welcome opportunity to rid myself of all those sad specimens lurking in the corners of our home.

Today, we still have no houseplants. Yet, against all logic, gardening has evolved into a passion of mine. In all fairness, I should say it’s more of a spectator sport. I love community-supported agriculture, farmers’ markets, and botanical gardens. In other words, I prefer the gardening to be done by someone other than myself.

Adult play

But there’s no one who’ll plant out my vegetable garden for me. In times of need, I turn to the UK for guidance. Gardening in the UK is serious business. It is a 30 billion dollar industry in normal times. When rumors circulated last March of an imminent UK-wide lockdown, sales of plants, bulbs and seeds surged. Tomatoes and lettuce were the bestsellers.

As Britain faced the COVID crisis, reassurance was difficult to come by, and one way it could still be attained was in the reliable germination of a windowsill pot of watercress or a garden-patch row of chard.

Rebecca Mead, “Nature and Nurture” in The New Yorker, 24 Aug 2020
Me, gardening. Photo credit: Frans Verhagen
Me, gardening 2014.
Photo credit: Frans Verhagen

In the flurry of online seed buying, there seemed to be a larger purpose at work. Gardening is, according to Mead, Britain’s response to crisis, whether that’s war or a pandemic. During WWII, Britons planted market gardens for both food security and to show patriotism. In WWI, British soldiers in the trenches planted vegetables to eat but also flowers.

A garden, then, however small or transient, is more than a food source. It also benefits the mind. Primary care doctors in the UK have recently taken to prescribing volunteer work at a community garden as a therapy equal to or perhaps even superior to talk groups or antidepressants. Gardening is a form of play for grownups who have otherwise stopped playing.

Zen gardening

What makes gardening so beneficial as a therapy is its repetitive nature. Think of the weeding and the watering, those annoying tasks that need to be done weekly if not daily. There is peace to be found in all that repetition.

Wendy Johnson. Image source:
Gardening at the Dragon’s Gate

Working in the garden is also meditation, though not in the conventional sense of calming down, moving slowly and deliberately, and dwelling in stillness. On the contrary, I am often most alert and settled in the garden when I am working hard, hip-deep in a succulent snarl of spring weeds. My body and mind drop away then, far below wild radish and bull thistle, and I live in the rhythmic pulse of the long green throat of my work.

Wendy Johnson, Gardening at the Dragon’s Gate: At Work in the Wild and Cultivated World (Bantam Books 2008)

Johnson is co-founder of the Farm and Garden Program at Green Gulch Farm Zen Center. Hers is not your standard issue Zen garden with its carefully raked rocks and koi pond. Green Gulch is a riot of whatever vegetable or fruit, herb or weed is in season at any given time. I have long wanted to volunteer at Green Gulch, if only to learn their gardening tricks.

But to Johnson and her acolytes, gardening is no trick. To cultivate the soil (for chard or basil or marigolds) is to cultivate your life.

The soil is dark, the wind is red, and my dreams are snake green with long white roots. At the back of my mouth, way behind memory and longing, is the taste of the ground I garden every day, grit that lingers on my tongue and tells me who I am.

Johnson, Gardening at the Dragon’s Gate

Best intentions

My gardening plans this year called for storm windows and plastic sheeting to extend the growing season. Those plans were upended when a tomato blight struck. I’ve had to uproot all my plants other than a few stalwart cranberry bean bushes and my herbs. It seems that my soil needs to be placed in quarantine until the spring.

Now, then, would be the time for me to pore over seed catalogs, plan a pergola of cherry tomatoes or propagate the shiso. I will, I promise. The dark days of winter are upon us. Soon, I will need the promise of green to come.

This is what gardening offers us. To connect with a beloved friend who gardens on the other side of the world, not far from Green Gulch. To search for the symbolism and metaphors of the gardening life.

When we sow a seed, we plant a narrative of future possibilities.

Sue Stuart-Smith, The Well-Gardened Mind: The Restorative Power of Nature (HarperCollins 2020)
Drying cranberry beans. Photo credit: Karen Kao