You’re feeling a bit fed up, a bit lost in some worries weighing you down. You’re feeling demotivated towards your creative work, yet you need to focus on something. You look out the window and see your garden. It needs some weeding doing, some shrubs cutting back…it’s been like this for the last few days, kind of accusing you of neglect and you think, well okay, I might as well do some gardening, then.
Soon, you’re on your knees with a trowel, a pair of secateurs, and a bucket standing by to fill with your labour. The sun slices through the clouds and warms you a little, it makes the colours around you come alive, and you notice the last few dewdrops remaining on blades of grass in the lawn catch the light and glitter like stardust – with brights of yellow gold, greens and pinks, and you marvel at this and know this is one of your favourite sights. You get stuck into your weeding. Then an hour passes, then another, because you’re registering one thing after the other that you just must see to before you can get a sense of completion, but you know that is a long way off…but in the meantime you’re feeling better, feeling more centred in yourself and you begin to appreciate what the act of cutting back and weeding out is teaching you, about your creative work, and about life. This may also be an unconscious process, but I believe it has a beneficial effect nonetheless.
I’ve loved gardening for many years. And with a bit of contemplation over that time, I feel its good for the soul because:
- It sorts the wheat from the chaff – the wanted from the unwanted
In digging up the weeds, so the plants you care about can flourish, you’re prioritising what you care about, what’s valuable to you and getting rid of what sabotages, what tries to take over and get in the way – of not only what you’re trying to nurture externally, but in what you’re trying to nurture in yourself as well. You can apply this to thinking unhelpful thoughts, that are getting in the way of your creativity. Does thinking this help me? If the answer is no, then toss it in with the weeds.
It can help with writing too eg letting go of excess description so a few gems can be left to stand out to better effect. Room to breath springs to mind. And within a painting, sometimes less is more.
- You sacrifice the old growth for the new
When you prune back the old stems of shrubs, you are doing so to let the new growth flourish up from the roots, cruel to be kind it sometimes feels like, but I’m usually stunned by what happens to a shrub in this way, seeing all the new stems push through when the time is right. While we need our roots, we all have to keep growing and changing when the time is right for us, and cutting back the old can bring us a new energy to fill that space…and then grow some more.
- It encourages you to let go of what no longer is working for you
You buy a special plant, one you covet, like a gorgeous peony rose. You water it, tend it, keep checking on it, but it never thrives. It goes limp with no new growth and you get tired of waiting, tired of hoping. One day you dig it up by the roots and throw it on the compost heap in disgust and disappointment.
But it can feel good, if you let it. Because you’re letting go of what’s not working anymore, and you’re not going to let it grow back. The roots have gone. Letting go like this may be painful, but it’s good for the soul. Letting go of attachments is a way of moving on with a little more insight and a little more freedom. I know this lesson, because I’ve felt it for myself.
- It teaches the lessons of the seasons: Death and Rebirth
My favourite season is Spring, because all the new and healthy growth shoots up. There are no avids, no blackspot, there is no blight to spoil the wonders. But as soon as Summer hits the decline begins and you have to spray the roses. Autumn’s changing colours are a feast for the eyes, then winter lets us off the hook with its stark dead sculptural forms and we can leave the garden to rest, to die back. There is a natural rhythm to this and it is within us too. For something new to be born in us, something must die. To bring changes in ourselves, some things that we previously valued greatly have to die. Basically there can be no new growth without death – and gardening teaches us that this is alright, its in the very order of nature and life.
And we can always grow some new seeds to germinate and grow.
- It teaches us that life is always subject to change and we should go with the flow
In a similar way to above, a garden can teach us that life is always in a state of flux. Some things need attention and care right now, some things are flourishing right now, but there is always a natural decline, a natural change, whether we like it or not. We have to appreciate the now, but always remember that this too will pass, the good as well as the bad.
- Most simply of all it can fill the senses, keep you mindful, and inspire
The feel of the soil on your hands, the snipping of the secateurs, the breath of a soft wind on your face, the close-up inspection of the centre of a flower, seeing bees collect nectar, hearing the birds chatter, the distant murmuring of a mower or the rumble of a tractor – it’s all great stuff for keeping you in the moment, being mindful. And of course it can inspire, as it does me with my painting.
It can fill you with awe at nature, its range of inventiveness – just look at all the variety in design of seed heads, the secret compartments of dispersal slowly opening, the release and renewal.
When I started this post, I thought I could make some fairly straightforward observations and comparisons about why gardening’s good for the soul, the idea coming from me restlessly staring out the window earlier at my back garden which needs a bit more work. But with the writing, my thoughts kept growing and there is still so much more to think about, and you could come up with a whole existential vocabulary around this. But in the meantime…