Can gardening mend a broken heart?

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I had always been quite dismissive of gardening. It seemed too docile and slow. And while vegetable gardening appealed, its association with self-sufficiency and artisan food movements struck me as somehow both too earnest and too pretentious. Even when I finally came to appreciate the beauty of gardens I still didn’t feel inspired to actually create one. But last year was a year when life rewound. I was beginning parts of myself all over again. Why not be a gardener of sorts this time? After all, my mind was racing and my heart was tender and slow and docile suddenly didn’t look so bad.

Much of the inner turmoil is displayed inside the house. That is where you really let loose. Privately. Sometimes manifesting as complete chaos and other times as an urgent desire for order. Mine was the latter. But the garden, beyond your immediate attention and yet on display to the street can betray your confidences. One day I noticed, or rather it was pointed out to me, that mine was making something of a statement. Herbs gone to seed, thirsty stalks in pots, unfinished projects and overgrown grass; it seemed to be telling the street that I did not have my life together.

At the time, I wasn’t much interested in gardens, and because I really did not have my life together what I really wanted was a new room, one that wouldn’t remind me of anything. Instead, I had a holiday and rather than going away I simply walked outside. And there in my garden I found a room, and then another, and another after that. They were quite tranquil rooms or at least, had the potential to be. Different parts of the garden offered different moods – they received varying amounts of sunshine, had a range of outlooks, provided assorted degrees of privacy or community, leant themselves to meals outside or children playing or solitude. With a little bit of work I realised they could become new living space. 

Gardens are places best visited spontaneously. Convincing myself to use the garden regularly meant removing obvious deterrents. So, I got rid of prickles from the lawn and I pruned a lot of shrubs and trees. I found sunlight now reached into areas where none had been, and I planted flowers there to celebrate. One morning I opened the door to my balcony and heard an alarming hum. It was the tree outside my bedroom in blossom and filled with bees. I realised then I hadn’t had the door open when it last flowered –  it had felt so overgrown and imposing out there.

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I found other secret lives in my garden too. The magpie family liked to take its chick to play in the sprinkler. The crows had taught themselves to safely kill poisonous toads. Seedlings spring forth so rapidly they literally emerge overnight. Like babies, they change daily.

I grew bolder. I pulled out the plants I hated. Because I could. With them, I removed unfinished projects and old toys. Neither were mine. Throwing out other people’s things is good for the soul. Throwing out your own things, especially when you’re in one of these moods can be dangerous. You can be rash and regret it later. But throwing out things that belong to others is therapeutic. Take it from me.

Then I planted vegetables and herbs everywhere. Some plants flourished, especially self-seeded tomatoes and nasturtium, while others I’d carefully tended died. Whenever this happened I took it quite personally. But that’s when I also discovered the wild creativity of gardens. Like an artistic creation, you are not in full control of the final product. My work was an interaction with living things, all the more serendipitous for a lack of gardening expertise.

Because I hated weeding so much I mulched over the top wherever I could. Almost any plant trimmed, pulled out or fallen down can become ‘mulch’. I think they call that layered gardening. Or laziness. And where I found it difficult to keep up with the weeds I planted sweet potato, Italian parsley and other edible plants that tend to be ambitious about space.  I pioneered a new weeding technique, too, when I recently took the phone down to a garden and accidentally weeded the entire plot during a difficult conversation. It was very productive displacement activity and I really should repurpose anger more often.

I practice a kind of amateur permaculture and in my version even the cat is part of the delicate balance. She doesn’t kill birds or lizards, her eyesight is terrible. She doesn’t kill snakes either, but she will stop them from getting too bold, which I appreciate. My hens, which I consider to be primarily garden ornaments create manure for the vegetables. When the grasshoppers  and caterpillars build up in the gardens I open the gates and let the hens in for the day. Any more time than this and the hens start on the vegetables, but a short visit keeps them on task. Watching hens is very meditative and eggs are just a bonus.

When all the gardening over the summer -- which had been variously a place-holder against the weeds, a timely distraction, and a way to have more contact with sunshine and sweat -- suddenly delivered a harvest this autumn it almost took me by surprise. I had forgotten this work was productive. But now I am collecting sufficient vegetables for minestrone one night and platters of roasted vegetables with sprigs of rosemary the next. I made a big batch of pesto before the basil finished for the season and ate watermelons for afternoon tea. I pick flowers, too, and put them in vases while concocting menus out of thin air and ripe ingredients. It feels like I am being nurtured, like the garden is almost a separate, benevolent entity.   

It is still a whimsical garden, full of cheap ideas and shoddy handiwork but it suggests a certain stability and peacefulness now. It is a garden to mend the heart and still the mind.