I found my friend Ali’s blog The Mindful Gardener over a year ago, and I am so glad I did. Ali is clearly passionate about gardening, and her posts are a feast both for the eye–as she shares her beautiful nature photography–and for the soul–as she includes such gentle wisdom, humor, and kindness in all her posts.
I asked her to do a guest post on gardening as self-love, and she so kindly obliged. Here is her post. And please go check her blog out (The Mindful Gardener). You won’t be sorry.
Gardening as Self-Love
I started gardening nearly ten years ago. I had just left a marriage with my two young children and one bag of luggage. I left on an aeroplane, traveling as far as it is possible to travel on this earth. It took enormous reserves of courage. This is remarkable, as my spirit had become more and more depleted in the previous five years.
I was like a struggling plant. I was ungrounded from having being uprooted and kept in a too-small pot; I was etiolated from having being kept away from the light. I needed some loving kindness.
Somehow I knew what I needed to do. I needed to garden. This was my act of self-love. I am still practising today.
I started small. I found a house with a tiny, self-contained garden. I started to work the soil. I got to know it. My soil was mainly clay, with quite a few house-bricks mixed in. I added grit and compost to lighten it. I knew that I wanted flowers and vegetables in my garden. I dug up areas of turf to make flowerbeds.
When my body was busy, I couldn’t worry. I simply focused on cutting this piece of turf, lifting it, putting it the wheelbarrow, repeating, filling the wheelbarrow, stacking my turves upside down behind the shed. This thing, then this. One thing naturally following another.
I love heavy work in the garden. I love the feeling of my wellie-clad feet pounding the earth, my spade sinking into the soil, or being weighed down by a watering can.
I got to know my garden. I have a connection with this small patch of earth. I am rooted and grounded in this earth.
We all want to be kind. We all want to be gentle and nurturing. At some times in our lives we are depleted. We have limited reserves of energy.
Plants need very little from us. All they ask for is a little space, a little light, a little water. Compared to other living things, these are modest needs.
If you have any doubts about your ability to practice loving kindness, start with plants. You will find yourself naturally looking on lovingly, perhaps stroking, perhaps uttering kind words. You will reassure yourself that you are able to nurture life. If you can do this with a plant, maybe you can extend this to yourself.
You learn that every type of seed is different. Each seed grows to its own plan. Take cosmos.
You just appreciate its fine feathered foliage, its tiny buds and its airy flowers. You don’t resent that it doesn’t produce fruit, or look like a dahlia.
It wasn’t meant to. It is perfect in its own way. Delightfully different to a dahlia.
Apply this loving kindness to yourself. You might not be a cosmos. You might be a dahlia. Growing to your own plan.
Children notice everything. They have no filter. They will notice aeroplanes going overhead where you have learnt to filter out that noise. Go outside and be a child. Free your attention to notice everything. Notice every colour. There are so many greens! I have always loved colour, but it was only when I started to garden that I realised just how many colours there are, and how colour is so interconnected with texture, so that even if a gladioli was the exact same colour as a tulip, it would appear different because of the texture. Gladioli are velvet, whilst tulips are satin.
Light and moisture alter colours so subtly that the same flower can be transformed if the sky is overcast, in low evening light, in mist, or with storm-clouds overhead.
If you just sit for a minute in the garden, you can’t help but be drawn into nature. You might want to sit or crouch in a place you don’t usually go. Look at things from a new angle.
Let your senses take in the feel of the breeze on your skin. You will hear the birds, maybe a bee. Look under a stone. Lift a leaf. Poke a leaf or a flower. Notice how it moves. Does it spring back? How does it do that? How is it constructed? Can you see veins? What gives it strength? Think about how it is drawing moisture up through its roots, up through the stems and into the leaves. Think about it opening to the sun. Stretching up, opening out, feeling the breeze.
Gardening awakens the senses. We integrate our sense of sight, sound, touch, smell, taste. We learn about balance, movement, space. As we become more aware of what is around us, we feel more integrated with the natural world. All we have to do is to notice.
If you grow food, even if it is just a tiny little bit, you have a new appreciation of it. You might grow some salad leaves in an old pair of wellies. Dried peas sprout quickly and produce delicious pea shoots to sprinkle on salad.
If you grow food, you appreciate its taste all the more. This freshly-picked leaf has more sweetness, more aromatics, than the one that has been packed in plastic at the supermarket. You taste more.
There is variety if you grow your own food that you don’t see in supermarkets. You can grow purple carrots, golden raspberries, stripy beetroot. Often the flavour is subtly different. It will have a firmer texture because it has been grown slowly. The sugars have had time to build up. There is nothing, nothing, as delicious as a small, sun-warmed strawberry.
It is not just taste. You get the smell, the feel, the sensations of picking. The tug of pulling on a rhubarb stem until it comes cleanly away. The slow filling of a colander as you browse through courgettes, tomatoes, beans. My favourite sensory pleasure is to squeeze the end of a pea-pod til it bursts, and then to run a finger down the line of peas, and feeling each pop from its stalk.
You will have a surprisingly small harvest. You will pick your crop for maybe two weeks of the year. You will realise what goes into food production. It will suddenly horrify you that any fruit or veg could ever be thrown away for being bumpy, or not being the right shape. You will treasure each forked carrot and blemished apple. They are perfect in their own way.
Everything has its season. Everything has a cycle. What goes up must come down. Blossom opens, and blows away. Fruit swells, and drops. Plants go inwards over winter, drawing their resources down to their core. Without a period of inactivity, they wouldn’t gather the energy to burst forth in spring.
An understanding of natural cycles helps us to accept our own ups and downs. Some days we feel energetic, some days we need to rest.
An oak tree produces a surfeit of acorns. Some years more than others. The oak tree does not expect every acorn to grow. Only a handful will become trees.
Gardening is like this. Expect a quarter of your endeavours to fail. Some seeds don’t germinate. Seedlings get eaten by slugs. We have never eaten a cherry or a walnut from our trees, because the birds and the squirrels get there first.
Don’t fight nature. Don’t garden in high winds or in rain. I have learnt from experience that this is miserable. Come inside. Rescue a few blooms and put them on the kitchen table. Get a cup of tea and a book. Gaze at your flowers. Plan next season. Wait for the storm to pass. It will.
Change is inevitable. The garden never looks the same from one day to the next. May 1st this year will be different to May 1st next year. Alliums might be early, geums might be late. Plants all respond differently to different light levels, temperatures, amounts of rain. Some plants are annuals, completing their life cycle in a year.
Others are perennial, and return year after year. Some shrubs take ten or twenty years to reach their peak, trees take longer. Some plants self-seed prodigiously, or send out runners. Others might need to be split, or cuttings taken.
Plants will have good ideas. Self-seeded borage will look fabulous with tulips. Plants will occasionally have bad ideas. Sometimes they overstep their boundaries and need to be brought back into line in order for others to flourish. You can establish some ground rules. You are orchestrating a wonderful ensemble. Everything has the ability to shine. Each plant has its season, and then will fall back and let others take a turn. It might take time to find the right place for each.
The garden is never finished, just like we are never finished. We are constantly growing, pruning back, shaping, budding, flowering, fruiting, surrendering to nature’s cycles, just a little bit different each time.
This is your space. You can make it your own. You are not gardening to anyone else’s tastes but your own.
I read books, blogs, magazines. I visit other gardens. I peer over fences. I spend time in natural landscapes: woodland, hillsides, the beach. Inspiration might seep slowly, or spring to mind like a revelation. You might seek to recreate the colours of a dress, or a sunset. You might want a cottage garden, a prairie garden, a dry garden, a bog garden.
You can change your mind. Growing annuals and bulbs allows you to alter your paint palette every season. You can have themed borders. I have a bright border for red, vermillion, orange, gold, lime green, sapphire blue, deepest purple and plum. Textures are spiky and exploding. I also have a restful rose garden with pinks, whites, apricots and peaches. There are soft, airy textures to brush past. There is scent.
Gardening should always be playful. You should make mistakes. If you’re making mistakes then you are trying. We should always be brave enough to try.
I never feel guilty about the time I spend in the garden. I can over-indulge in tulips or roses or dahlias without any bad repercussions. The worst that has happened is that I might be ten minutes late for work because I couldn’t stop picking sweet peas. I can forgive myself for this.
The garden is a space for me. I can happily be alone for hours at a time. Members of my family might flit around. My step-daughter likes to dip a net into the pond to see what is there. My eldest daughter might take photos for an art project. My younger daughter is an excellent forager and fruit-picker. I like to sit and have a coffee with my partner. But mostly, it is just me, my plants, the sun, the earth.
This is very much my garden. I fill out and take up space. I am important here. We all need to take up space and feel important.
You have grounded yourself with hard work. You have nurtured a few plants to maturity. You have have noticed the sensory pleasures and appreciated the earthy delights. You have accepted failure and change. You have explored your creativity, made mistakes, made more, started again. You have made this your own.
Sit, or stand. Take it all in. This is your space. You are part of it. You are connected to the whole of creation.
Breathe in, and out. Feel your roots. Draw up the energy of the earth, up your trunk, into your branches. Open out the leaves of your hands. Lift up the flower of your head. Open out your petals. Open to the sun.
Now doesn’t that feel good?
If you enjoyed Ali’s post, please consider sharing on social media.
And once again, head on over to her blog The Mindful Gardener and check it out!