I lived in a 31-foot RV for nearly five years, and I traveled a lot. Sometimes I lived in the north, sometimes in the south. I've lived west and east and everywhere in between. I've driven all the major highways and more little back roads than I could ever recall, and I garden
Being on the road all the time made it hard to develop roots of my own. It's pretty hard on a garden, too. But every winter, long about February or March, when those seed catalogs start showing up, I simply couldn't help myself. The thought of fresh, flavorful tomatoes, crisp green and purple bush beans, and endless supplies of scallions and garlic danced through my head, and I was smitten.
I think my garden provided the roots and the foundation I couldn’t get any other way at that time in my life. Thousands of miles from friends and family, my life was spread across North America, my garden was my home. Wherever I happened to place my pots and planters, the act of planting, weeding, and harvesting my crops kept me sane and well-fed, both physically and emotionally.
There's something so basic, to me, about gardening. It was and is sustenance and therapy. Early each growing season, I pulled my garden from its bins under my RV and started the cycle anew. The smell of fresh earth, rich with nutrients and potential, I saw and felt my own possibilities. Compost was added, very much the way I took my daily vitamin, ensuring that the necessary materials were available for building and maintaining a healthy life.
Dirty fingernails and facial smudges never deterred me from my task. Neat little paper packets of future crops would lie on my table as I decided what would go where this time around. How deep, how tall, how much sunlight, how much water, compatibility, and competition, they are the stuff of life that ground me to the realities we all experience. Gardening is the parallel by which I run my life. Decisions must be made, options selected and others put aside.
The first green shoots look so vulnerable as I tend and protect them from marauding snails, squirrels, and foraging birds. I don't blame them for wanting what they want, any more than I blame people for their needs or their short-sightedness. It simply requires my attention and dedication, as do all the important things. The shoots became stems and I would search under rocks and debris for worms to import into my pots. Occasional weeds would be watched for just as dishonest and dangerous people must be avoided and removed from our daily routines.
New leaves and young stems strive and reach for the sun as their roots spread down and out, gathering all that they need. In the same way, I must make time for sun and water and enough space to grow, to create my stories and my life. Eventually, flower buds emerge, leaves spread and my stories are written and submitted to publishers around the globe, with hopes for both to receive the pollination they need to continue.
Tiny green tomatoes develop under drying flowers; thin bean strands push buds away to claim their rightful place. Flat garlic and tubular onion stems spike upwards, hiding all their efforts deep within the soil, a gastronomical iceberg. I was tempted to fry up some green tomatoes but I had to be patient as my crop was limited to portable pots and window boxes. Life is full of decisions about immediate and long-term gratification. Self-control and delayed gratification are valuable skills whether gardening or simply living.
My garden feeds me and fulfills me. It tethers me to the natural cycles of growth and death, seasonal changes, and truisms. Every year presents different conditions, different problems, and different rewards. Growth and harvest come in many forms, and I will forever let my garden teach me.
I have a T-shirt emblazoned with, “Gardening is cheaper than therapy, and you get tomatoes.”
In these days of reiterating Covid viruses, time spent in the garden gives you far more than just tomatoes.
The truth is that we’re all tired of living with Covid. We’re tired of the interruptions, inconveniences, and lack of social contact, tired of the masks and social conflicts. Amidst our pandemic fatigue, it has become easy to forget that this disease continues to be a life-threatening ordeal for many because of illness or medical therapies. Healthy individuals seem to forget that their lack of a mask or vaccine can mean a death sentence for the rest of us. As of this morning, friends and families of more than 5.6 million people are mourning the loss of their loved one to Covid.
See how we are these days?
We rant, we withdraw, we divide and shun. And spending time in a garden or working with plants is a big help during those times.
Gardening slows your pace
You can’t rush an artichoke plant. You can’t hurry thyme. They will grow as they do and all you can do is nurture them and watch. As you look closely at your plants, at the soil, you may start to see details you never knew were there, and some of your stress will slip away.
Many years ago, I owned a private school called Children’s Academy. Our slogan was, “Where K-12 learning is fun!” And it was. One activity we did each year was the Red Yarn Circle. Each student was given a clipboard with a large sheet of high-quality drawing paper, a freshly sharpened pencil with a good eraser, and a 3-foot section of fat, red yard. They were told to select a spot of their choice on the school’s 3-acre property, create a circle with their red yard on the ground, and draw whatever they saw within that circle. It was common for new students to groan when they heard this assignment. “There’s nothing there!” They would protest. But I would insist, and they would begin.
Being made to stop, look closely, and think about (or draw) what you see can take you into an entirely new world. Battles are still being fought, but they are between beetles, not nations. Bits of shale become bejeweled boulders. Your perspective shifts, and things that were upsetting fade away. Gardening helps you achieve the same sense of tranquility and perspective. If you let it.
Working the soil improves mood
Some therapies are more effective when combined with medication. Gardening has its own chemical benefits. One soil microorganism in particular, Mycobacterium vaccae, improves mood. This microorganism is absorbed through tiny cuts in our skin and inhaled on dust particles as we garden. Once inside our bodies, these microorganisms cause a chemical reaction similar to the effects of Prozac. [Note: If you are having an especially difficult time dealing with life these days, call 800-273-8255 for help.]
Gardening helps you focus
You probably don’t watch the news or follow social media while in the garden. The sheer volume of information faced by people today is enough to send anyone to the madhouse. The human psyche can only handle so many conflicts. Working in the garden lets much of that slip away. Instead of thinking about global problems that you have no control over, you focus on the here and now. What’s causing a misshapen leaf or stem? What might be feeding on your squash? You may notice the asparagus has begun to send up delicious shoots. It’s a much healthier perspective, in my opinion.
I believe that, as you notice the needs of your plants, you are probably more likely to notice your own needs as well. Did you remember your hat or sunscreen? Are you staying hydrated? Eat a fresh, sun-ripened cherry tomato. You know. The important stuff. And this isn’t just my opinion.
Over the past few years, a significant body of evidence has demonstrated that gardening provides a wealth of benefits. Not only does gardening help you lose weight and put you back in sync with natural cycles, but research also demonstrates that gardening reduces depression and anxiety while improving “life satisfaction, quality of life, and sense of community.” [Gardening is beneficial for health: A meta-analysis, Masashi Soga, et al]
If you feel your mental reserves have been used up, head to the garden or pamper your potted plants. They really will help you feel better.
Plus, you get tomatoes!
Kate Russell, writer, gardener, and so much more.