Make Gardening Heal Again

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Green Man, watercolor by Elaine, 2008

“I won’t plant vegetables this year,” I told my two sons this winter. I said it often to convince myself. I’ve grown vegetables since 1970, but the weeds were more persistent than I was last year. The garden took more time than I wanted to give.

They listened. They’d heard this before.

David has a garden in North Carolina where he lives, but Anthony lives three miles from me. He wasn’t having it.

“Let’s make gardening fun again,” he said. This play on a maddening political motto became our mantra.

I rolled my eyes. It’s easy to plant, but harder to weed, tend, and harvest. Anthony knows my desire to have fewer projects, but he doesn’t believe gardening is the place to cut back. He sees how mellow I get when I tend plants.

Anthony giving a garden box demo in the barn

“Will you consider a new plan?” he asked. He gave me a gentle hug.

“Maybe, but it has to be manageable.”

“We’ll keep it tidy,” he said.

“And small?” I asked. He smiled again.

Like their dad who died in 2008, my sons are Green Men with square jaws and curls. They’re good at growing things. They like caring for forest trees and trails. They aren’t afraid of a tick or mosquito.

A month ago in early spring, Anthony and I walked to the garden, still brown and wet from winter. He explained his new plan, putting in stakes where the fence and beds would go.

“Should we rototill?” I asked. “Maybe the beds should be angled east to west for more sun.” I was being lured.

“Let’s go for a no-till method.” Anthony spoke quietly, like I was a horse about to bolt.

“We’ll try two raised beds in wooden boxes,” he said, “and unboxed raised beds along the north side of the fence for peas, beans, and cucumbers. We’ll keep it easy to maintain so plants thrive.” Although the soil is rich, it’s been heavy the last two wet years. Anthony had a plan for that, too. He’d been busy.

A few days later, Anthony sent a text: “This man is my spiritual guide for gardening these days (besides you, of course).” The video was Gardening Myths That Take Our Time by Charles Dowding. After watching this soft spoken, reassuring gardener, I was convinced.

Last weekend, Anthony went plant shopping and returned with a few dozen seedlings for his garden and mine. We repotted lettuce, kale, and arugula with soil and compost. It was sweet getting my hands in dirt.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The next day, Anthony returned with his friend Jenna and set up the first box, filled it with rich soil, compost from my bin, worm castings, coconut husks, and more. I dug out some clumps of grass and watered the new plants at the side of the house where I’ll “harden them” to survive wind and sun. We all need a little protection.

bluebird eggs in a nesting box near my house

Even as I resist, I’m pulled in. Why block a new idea before letting it sprout and flower? Maybe I’ll end up with a weed pile. Who cares? As we work and plan, I remember the first dream I had after Vic’s death about the Green Man and his message of renewal. The dream assured me I would find healing in nature and the garden. That hasn’t changed. What’s better for improving my hearing than bird songs I haven’t heard for years?

Can I approach life and gardening with more wonder and less will? I like what Margaret Atwood said.

“In the spring, at the end of the day, you should smell like dirt.” 

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Do you garden? Do you get overwhelmed or keep it manageable? For an article about the Green Man and my grief dream about him, see Bloom Where You are Planted. For an inspiring article by Oliver Sacks, see The Healing Power of Gardens.

I’m giving a workshop called Finding Wisdom in Aging and Loss in Columbus, Ohio on May 17 and 18. I’d be grateful if you shared this information with friends in that area who would be interested.

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30 Comments
  1. Dear Elaine, Good on Anthony for encouraging and supporting you, his wonderful mum, in the joyful activity of gardening. Making it fun, oh I love that! For what better way to approach gardening than to scatter and sow many seeds of delight! As I’m sure you’re aware it’s an all-round exercise, which if more doctors prescribed to their patients (instead of handing out medication like sweets) I believe that the entire world would be better off for it! All of us, as gardening doesn’t only alleviate mental illness, it greatly prevents it too.

    On a personal note, I know I will be making the most of nature and my relationship with Her until I take my very last breath. Oh my Goddess, just getting my hands dirty makes me so happy as there is something in Mother Nature that seems to heal me on all levels, mind, body, spirit and soul.

    I shall look forward to seeing and hearing about how your two raised beds in their wooden boxes go … lots of photos please! Hmm, why not start an Instagram account and then you could post lots of photos. I only post nature or poetry myself as I love to watch the wheel of the year turn with what’s new in the woods, parks etc … also the photos are helping me with my poetry of the year series.

    I love reading all about your dreams especially here at Beltane’s Eve when the Goddess and Her Green Man are readying themselves for the Big Day tomorrow! Like yourself I also got married in the merry month of May and ever since it’s been my favourite month of the year. The very best of luck with your forthcoming workshop, I only wish I could be there because I know it’ll be amazing, just like you my dear friend! Love and light, Deborah.

    • It’s been so wet here it’s hard to get in the gardens, Deborah, so I’m waiting like everyone else in this area. Rain in the forecast every day for the next week. I’ll get planting in sometime, but until then I’m weeding flower beds and potted plants are happy and flourishing. Anthony has the materials for the second garden bed, so we’re waiting for a nice day. I needed a new gardening style on a much smaller scale.

      I think the raised beds will be a hit. I’d know more by now if the weather would cooperate. Ah, Instagram. I’ve thought of it, but Anthony hasn’t talked me into that one so far–and he’s tried. I can’t imagine more social media. I share at least one photo a day on Facebook. I’m sure you post beautiful things. I’m having few dreams, but had a beauty starring a large Blue Morpho Butterfly the other night. It was in my dream house! I’m writing about it. Today, May Day, is the Green Man’s Day. I’ll always be grateful for the gift of the Green Man dream after Vic’s death. It gave me hope in the midst of despair and still brings hope almost 11 years later. I’m giving the workshop on grief and mythology on my wedding anniversary. Have faith, I tell myself. That’s a day of good fortune. I wish you could be there, too. I send a green blessing for your marriage anniversary.

      • To be giving a workshop on your wedding anniversary feels almost destined. Yes, a day of good fortune indeed! Thank you so much for your green marriage blessing. x

  2. Your sons, Green Men themselves, have adapted your garden to manageable, attractive proportions. Good for them! I believe plants and monarchs are essential to your well-being — sanity even! A choice line I picked out: “What’s better for improving my hearing than bird songs I haven’t heard for years?”

    We no longer grow vegetables, but I like the pop of yellow from marigolds on the patio. Right now I’m trying to coax my hibiscus plant to bloom. The tree trimmer has cut off a few oak branches to let these plants get more sun. They’ve been struggling. And Cliff has gone a little nuts planting blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, a grape, and a fig beside the lake. The soil is so sandy he has to haul water every day.

    I just skimmed through the Oliver Sacks article in the NYTimes before I read your post. (Ah, you posted it recently on Facebook.) I may use it in a post honoring the Japanese practice of forest-bathing.

    Your post breathes health and life, inspiration I’m sure you’ll share in the May workshop.

    • Hibiscus is so beautiful in FL. They do love sun. Sounds like you have a fruit garden growing nearby thanks to Cliff. I have a Zen-like cartoon image of Cliff in my imagination–a Chinese hat, carrying water to tend the thirsty plants. I hope the roots reach the lake and need less water carrying in time.

      Isn’t that Oliver Sacks article a beauty? He was wise in so many ways. Thank you, Marian, for the workshop blessing. It’s time for me to relax (how do you spell that word again?) and trust that I have it together and all will be well. Or well enough. Spring blessings to you and your book baby.

  3. Maybe you’ll end up with a weed pile. Who cares! Exactly, Elaine. We do what we want to do because we like doing it. The results don’t matter as much as the honest effort. Some things are out of our control. Besides, working in a garden is more mindful than walking around in a circle in the sun. Unless we like walking around in circles.

    • I like walking in the woods, Mark. I’m laughing. Sometimes I end up circling back to where I began–in the woods and in life. The garden is a more manageable size now–so you read that word “manageable.” I like the plants to be more robust rather than choked and smothered by weeds. I have a nasty invasive here (so does everyone, so I’m not taking it personally) called bindweed that wraps itself around other plants and binds them up. It’s a wild morning glory which sounds good in theory. Many of other “weeds” have flowers, so other than bindweed, they’ll live at the edge of the garden rather than in the new planting boxes. And I will listen to the bird songs!

  4. I love your sons Elaine. Thank you David and Anthony. You both are one hundred percent right. And with your help she won’t have to stop gardening, ever, please. And if it comes to it, please build a ramp down to the garden where there are beds on legs so she could come in a wheelchair if necessary to plant and weed. I went overboard you say? Maybe, maybe not.
    I might have to fly out from the West coast just to see this new joint garden. I have no doubt it will be wonderful. I may have to hire your entire family to come help me get mine together when I find land outside of Santa Cruz. Pretty please. I’ll feed you well.
    Although nothing with a fruiting body grows in Carmel without a greenhouse (due to fog) I had to have one box in front of my kitchen window for lettuce, mustard greens and herbs. It worked well for a couple of years, but then I started to see the dirt going down. Turns out the bottom was falling out. Oops.
    I always feel better after having been in my garden, with flowers or vegetables. It’s like taking a shower, I never say…O I wish I hadn’t taken that shower.
    You are my gardening guru Elaine. And you (and Vic) produced two more gardeners! How marvelous. The world is a better place with you all in it.

    • Lauren, the wheelchair will likely come, but not yet. We never know when. So far, I love walking to the garden. Hmmmm… gardening in Santa Cruz. That’s an offer to be considered. Artichokes and an olive tree! My gardening boxes have thick wire mesh covering the bottom to keep the moles and voles out but allow drainage. The second box for hot weather crops is in the barn in pieces, but hasn’t been set up and won’t be needed until late May.

      Anthony and David helped in the garden when they were kids–enough to learn how to grow plants and make them love it rather than feel it was a burden. Vic was a gardening man, too, but best at the big jobs that required a shovel or tractor like planting trees and making paths. The fine-tuning was always my work. Any time you want to fly out to visit, I’m happy. Wanna pull some weeds?

  5. O I’m glad you were lured in Elaine! Sometimes the task of gardening can seem overwhelming but there’s nothing like getting rid of weeds (like getting rid of weeds in our psyches) and tending to the soil so that nature can blossom and bloom and offer up her beauty. And letting the worms do their necessary work – also a useful metaphor for our own inner work.

    I look forward to checking out your links, thanks for providing them.

    • I was lured–and it’s a good thing. We’re thwarted by weather this year, Susan, but I don’t take it personally. It’s unusually cool and wet for everyone in this area. The good thing is the spring flowers like daffodils and scilla bloom keep blooming because there’s no heat to discourage them. It’s green here! The spring garden is started and I’ll do more planting next week when the rain stops. It always does. The original lettuce and arugula plants grow with enthusiasm. I’ll harvest salad soon. There’s something magic about tending a garden and growing my own food.

  6. Hi Elaine, I hope you are well and that the op has begun to make things better for you . Your article about gardening was of interest to me, as working on a small garden plot has been such a big part of my life, ( I think that I shared a garden poem with you in the past and if you contacted me I could send you lots more) To me gardening is a very powerful way of participating in the process of creation, and is as close to a religious practice as I can get. Learning to tend and coax, accepting that I am not in charge and must allow myself to be guided, and that it will often not go the way I anticipated . It is a place of poetry and colour and song . It is also a container for me when things are difficulty and a place that can hold me while transformations are taking place . It is both external to me and part of my psyche. Don’t ever give up tending your garden . From a practical point of view I find that producing for consumption or an end product doesn’t fit into my sense of gardening, other people can do that better than I can; but growing things in different ways, like Forest Gardening or growing edible perennials is something I have started to look at . So much to learn and to be grateful for . Thank you for sending your thoughts across the sea. Best Wishes Gary

    • I agree with you, Gary, and will send an email request for garden poems/inspiration. You sent a beautiful garden poem once. I love your way of putting it: “gardening is a powerful way to take part in the process of creation.” Growing things, planting trees, and tending annuals, perennials, and trees has been a spiritual experience for me, too–since 1968 and before that as a child with my dad and grandmothers. Gardening took off when we bought this land in 1972. I needed a contained size and style, so it’s happening. My husband died on June 3. In his last weeks, a friend tended my summer plants and “hardened” them to sun and wind. I hadn’t known when I bought them that Vic would die before they were planted, although their were hints that his will toward life was fading. The day after his death, I said to my sons as they hammered in the tomato stakes and helped plant seedlings, “What am I going to do with all this food?” “It’s a good year to give away food,” they said, and they were right. Planting was the most reassuring and healing thing we could do. (I wrote about that day in my book ‘Leaning into Love.’ I love going out to the garden to pick a quart of green beans for lunch or a few small zucchinis with an onion or lettuce and cucumbers for dinner–producing for my consumption and harvesting to help the plants thrive and produce more.

      Another year, I’ll grow and tend plants–and songbirds and perennial gardens near the house. The perennial flowers along the hiking trails are naturalized and only need admiring. The lupines are showing their beautiful leaves with promises of thousands of blue and purple blooms for the end of May. It’s May Day, the time of the Green Man.

  7. I now have four 6×3 raised garden beds. It’s mostly manageable, but as I try more things out, I realize that I do and don’t like to or need to grow. Pumpkins and spaghetti squash were fun to try, but it’s way too much prep to process the pumpkins and I don’t really covet eating that much squash. On the other hand, I am getting better at growing and preserving my staples, such as tomatoes, green beans, cucs, and strawberries. I have a friend with a giant garden and though she loves how it cuts down on her grocery bill, she also gets really crabby every year when the time comes to process all of it!

    • Thanks for your take on this, Jeri. I gave up many of the crops I used to grow because it’s easy to buy delicious organic winter staples. I’ll get a bushel or two of squash, onions, and carrots in the fall when they’re plentiful. I used to freeze all the family vegetables. My cellar had a packed freezer and beautiful jars of canned fruit. No more. I’m happy to grow enough to eat with a few left to share. I never felt the amount of time I spent canning and freezing was balanced by cost saving. I’ll freeze some tomato sauce and tomatoes for soup, but mostly I’ll grow my favorites that never quite taste the same from the grocery like lettuce, arugula and other greens, cucumbers, zucchini, green beans, and tomatoes. It’s been cool and wet here, so the season is slow. Blessed Beltane to you.

  8. You’re blessed to have such wonderful boys Elaine. I couldn’t imagine you giving up on growing your garden. And I’m sure you are content. Now keep us updated on the progress. 🙂

    • I am, Debby. The “boys” are in their 40s, so definitely men. I could imagine giving up the vegetable growing since I can join a CSA or go to a Farmer’s Market. I wouldn’t give up flowers because they’re too beautiful, plus they encourage butterflies to hang around my house. We haven’t had good gardening weather, but that’s not unusual here. Nature is the boss and She’s been in a bad mood.

      • I hear you on the weather. I do believe we have the same weather. Suffice it to say, we may just get out of our winter coats this weekend – despite the rain called for. 🙂

  9. Awesome post, dear Elaine …. great to know that you found encouragement as far as gardening is involved.
    I am growing succulents here. I love them and I even managed to propagate them from leaves. They are beautiful and easy to manage.
    It is getting cold here and lately it has been raising a lot, so I keep them indoors now.
    Love your gardening achievement, my friend. Keep it up. Love and best wishes, always ♥️

    • Ah, succulents. They’re my son’s expertise. As a joyful hobby, he designed and planted succulent gardens for himself and friends when he lived in San Francisco for many years. When he moved back here, he drove across the country carrying a cache of succulent cuttings. I have succulents as indoor plants, some happier than others after a winter of dry indoor heat. I’ll move them to the porches for summer humidity and light and they’ll be much happier. Anthony often takes the tired pots to his house and replants, so I find surprises on my porch. We’re having a wet spring, so haven’t made much progress planting in the mud. The Green Man rules and paints everything his color. Thanks for your loving message, Aquileana.

  10. Elaine, any attempts I have made at gardening in my life have ended up being unpleasant for me and disastrous for the plants. Last weekend since 3 members of my family were outside in my yard picking up sticks and getting the lawn ready for mowing, etc., I joined them and spent 10 minutes weeding. It hurt my knees and hands and gave me indigestion. Maybe next year.

    But I applaud your skill and determination. Several of my friends also find joy and renewal in their gardening, no matter how hard it is on their bodies.

    • I’m enjoying the smaller contained garden this year. Gardening isn’t hard on my body, but it’s not fun when it becomes a nagging chore choked by weeds. For me, the new plan feels like the right balance. As always it’s a work in progress, but there’s already lettuce and arugula to eat and a new planting of lettuce in the dirt. We have farmer’s markets, CSAs, and beautiful local produce here, so no practical need to grow it ourselves unless it’s fun. You honor spring with exquisite paintings.

  11. You’re an inspiration. That said, having two Green Men with square jaws and curls as sons is a blessing.

    • Thank you, Ashen. I’m determined if nothing else. Yes, those two sons are blessings. They’re here for me when I need them and they force me into new worlds with computers, technology, and gardening. I’m not sure I would have gone for the cochlear implant except one of my sons put me in touch with his friend’s mom who who just happens to run a large cochlear implant support group in the San Francisco area. Her enthusiasm was support enough.

      • Ah, dragged kicking and screaming into the brave new world, eh? 🙂

        • Laughing! The old way of gardening was done. (The old way of hearing was done, too.) The new garden plan is hopeful and I’m already eating lettuce and arugula. Anthony made a second raised bed and has markers up for a fence. Vining crops will go in unboxed raised beds next to the fence where they can climb. We have a plan.

          Joe, thank you for being a helpful guide with the cochlear implant. I saw my hearing docs for the last scheduled adjustment a few days ago–and no adjustment was needed. After 7 weeks of sound, I tested at the highest level of adaptation in terms of word comprehension and picking up tones. In their tonal beep and hum testing, I have “normal” hearing in the implanted ear. The sound is a little odd, as you know, but less so every day. The brain has the raw data it needs and word comprehension will improve in more challenging situations. I asked them about fatigue and they smiled and nodded with understanding. Yes, it’s a neurological workout, but that will improve (as you said). They agreed with what you and Judy Cohen (a woman who has had two implants for 12 years) advised. Wear the audio receiver every waking minute even if tired so the brain keeps adjusting to the new normal. Rest by turning the volume down a little for a short time in a quiet environment. It’s working and it will get better. Thanks for wise advice and support.

  12. Hello Elaine,
    It’s wonderful to read of your gardening and hearing achievements and the loving support of your sons. And to think that you will be giving your workshop in four days. Wow. Your followers are looking forward to hearing all about it.

    • Hi Anne. We’ve had days of rain here. The trails can’t be mowed without making deep ruts. The world is primordial mud. The raised beds pause, although I’ll harvest enough leaves to have a salad tonight and the second lettuce planting sprouted. My hearing is doing well and will continue improving, but deep fatigue is my companion as my brain works double-time to process and interpret the bionic input. I’m assured this is normal. All I can do is sleep a lot–and I do. I’m as prepared for the workshop as I know how to be and adrenaline will help me rise to the occasion. The Jung folks in Columbus are welcoming and helpful and ready to roll. “All shall be well…”

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