In a world that often feels too loud, too bright, and just too much, gardening helps to quiet the internal noise. It’s not definitely not silent outside. Blue jays chitter and chase the hawks away from their nest as I watch the bees pollinate my tomato flowers. My colleague and I call the experience garden therapy. There’s something special about walking outside into your garden and inspecting your plants for new growth and to tend to its needs. It’s as if your worries melt away, even if just for a moment.
As a person who struggles with anxiety and the concept of failure, gardening might seem to be the last thing that would calm my nerves but surprisingly it does. I’ve learned so many life and coping skills from gardening. You must learn that you cannot control all elements of your environment. You can have the right soil, seeds, light, and water, but something may still not grow or flourish. In my garden every year a different plant thrives or fails. Last year, blossom end rot claimed more than half of my tomatoes and, this year squash bugs devoured my zucchini and squash plants. I can never predict what may go wrong. It took a few seasons for me to let go of failure and to embrace what I can’t control as an inevitable part of gardening.
In 2020, like many others, I found myself gardening again and since then I have shoveled at least 3 cubic yards of soil by myself. Building, editing, and rebuilding my garden bit by slow bit, I have transformed it over the years. For one summer, my garden lived in pots due to the removal of diseased trees, and I had to hustle to move my raised beds away from the path of the giant pine trees. But now, my garden again takes shape as a space that I love. If you saw my garden, you may not think ‘peaceful paradise’. Tomato plants flop over their trellises, dead leaves need pruning, and Seminole pumpkin vines cover most of the ground, causing the smart gardener to think before you step. It’s chaos but it’s my chaos. The hide and seek hunt for ripe tomatoes and cucumbers in the greenery brings excitement. The current space may need tweaks, and a better way for me to weed between the beds, but it’s mine. Gardening gives release to anxious energy in a time of great unknowns.
When asked how I handle pests, I answer that I don’t. I lose plants to aphids, cucumber worms, squash bugs, and many other pests every year. I find the process of determining what pesticide to use very overwhelming and I’ve never tried neem oil. Fire ants are the only pest I’ve tried to remove from my garden because I kept getting bit (I used cinnamon and diatomaceous earth). Instead of neem oil and other pesticides, I try to plant pollinator plants and feed birds to encourage them to go into the garden and eat pests for me. Depending on the plant, if a bug got there first, I cut off the bad area for the compost bin or chickens and eat what’s still good.
I take the same approach to those who claim to have a “black thumb” and have no confidence in their ability to keep a garden going. They’ll kill all their plants! I can’t tell you how many house and other plants I’ve accidentally killed. Too much sun. Not enough sun. Not enough water. Soil was wrong. Through everything I learned gardening takes practice and patience. To help myself manage, I research the things I can control. Many elements go into successful gardening, and you don’t have to do all of them. I made my own potting soil this year and had success in starting seedlings but I had just as many seedlings using store bought potting soil. I find that if I lower my expectations, I’m almost always pleasantly surprised rather than bitterly disappointed.
Gardening is an exercise in letting go and having patience: two concepts I struggle with in real life. Over time though, these lessons have weaseled their way in my day to day life. The best part of gardening has been sharing it with my daughter. We had visited a neighbor’s garden in March 2020 and our daughter would eat kale straight from our neighbor’s garden by the fistfuls. She doesn’t love kale as much as she used to but her love of veggies is still strong. By four, the cucumbers were on her plate at every meal, and, now five, I grew kidney beans and sweet potatoes for the first time this spring to satisfy her love of both. I love exploring the vegetation with her. Together, we discover the ladybugs who help us with the aphids, and the frogs who eat the gnats. She’s learned about pollination at school and loves to watch the process at work in real time. Our pollinator garden lives outside our front window and she screams with joy when she sees a butterfly or hummingbird. Sometimes my anxiety creeps in with questions like does my pollinator garden desperately need to be weeded? I remind myself: Absolutely, but the butterflies, bees, wasps, and other creatures don’t seem to mind.