Cultivating calm: how gardening helps me find peace | Gardening advice
IIt was the runner beans that made it. My neighbor, who is in her 90s, dropped an envelope filled with a small handful of dried beans that looked like they had been dipped in pink and black paint. A few months later, I ate the best runner beans I’ve ever tasted, and they kept coming for weeks. We gave away tufts and tufts, ate more, learned to unthread them, and then when the plants looked tired recently, we let them dry out and saved the seeds for the next year.
I have a troubled mind and have tried everything to calm it down. Running, meditating, yoga. Work hard, hardly work. I kept listening to the app that was supposed to ground you, only to float away on a cloud of guilt because I couldn’t focus on it long enough. But gardening works like nothing else. I can stroll into the garden for five minutes and find that three hours have passed. I don’t look at my cell phone. I tend not to worry or worry. And I can eat (most of) the booty.
For most of my adult life, I’ve lived in rental apartments in London, never in one place long enough to be sure it was going on a seasonal cycle. Outdoor space was a rarity and a luxury. At the first lockdown, in another apartment without a garden, I tried anyway. A few herbs on each window ledge, mostly the simple ones, parsley and mint, but also some tomato plants from seeds, surprisingly hardy on the roof of a bay window in the apartment below.
Then I fled the city with my partner, moved to a town and a small house with a garden in front and back, once loved but largely left to its own devices in recent years. It had become a foliage battle royale, and the winner turned out to be ivy that was everywhere. It took some work. It was a big job. And then one day we got stuck. What a pleasure to have a reason to be outside when it was light and dry, getting dirty from digging and tired from lifting, to see like a bed we had to laboriously clear over time revealed itself with nature’s underrated humor of harboring snowdrops, daffodils, and tulips that were buried much deeper than the fork had gone.
Take a magic bean … Rebecca bred her own runners thanks to her neighbor. Photo: Mint Images / Getty Images / Mint Images RF
Finding garlic under bushes, seeing remains of forgotten vegetable patches, peonies, roses, crocosmias, Mexican orange blossoms, everyone insisted they would show up, thank you very much, even though they have not been tended by human hands for years. Each of them was a little miracle, a lesson in resilience.
People say that bakers are naturally associates. I think gardeners are the same. The neighbor who gave us runner beans also gave us spectrally pale green Nicotianas, spider plant babies that have since given birth to their own, a pepper plant that is now inside and has just given up a late-ripened red pepper. Another neighbor dropped off cucumbers that were far better than mine. When we were trying to shape the semi-overgrown front yard, someone brought out a wheelbarrow in case we needed it, while another offered to use the hollow he had rented for his own garden clearance. Oh, I thought. This is what community feels like.
You are supposed to leave a garden for a year, I read, to see what’s there, but I couldn’t wait that long. I made some pretty flowers from seeds – some neon pink sugar peas, a cosmos that looks like fireworks (not known individually as a single “cosmo” as I discovered when I tried to show off) – but it was the fruit and Vegetables, mostly vegetables, that was the biggest revelation. In a miserable year it was a miracle to be able to go into the garden and pick dinner. The night I made garden advice, every ingredient we grew, onion, garlic, pepper, tomato, zucchini, herbs, I felt a satisfaction that cheers me up thinking about it today, despite most of these Plants have long since gone to the compost heap.
I go into the garden and find that three hours have passed. I don’t look at my cell phone. I am not worried. And I eat the booty.
As a hobby, gardening isn’t cheap (initially, although the amount of recycling and reuse makes it easier) and it doesn’t come quickly, but it’s comforting and comforting, and it’s useful. It felt good to be able to give people lettuce from the garden when the supermarket shelves were running low. It was my own little taste of being a doomsday prepper, and while I’m not sure how much salad will be in demand at the end of the world, it’s nice to know that I could still have some Drunken Woman salad, if i wanted it.
It becomes all consuming. It’s getting out of hand. I went to the Chelsea Flower Show for the first time this year and came back with a bag full of bulbs and seeds, mostly chosen by name and whether they looked funny. I’m working my way through the RHS Level 2 qualification in horticulture, studying soil improvement, and trying to remember how photosynthesis works. But I’m not a good gardener or a knowledgeable one yet. I’m a beginner, easy and learn by rolling up my sleeves.
In most situations, in the other parts of my life, I can be tense. I hate it. But if I don’t know what to do in the garden, I call my mom. Their advice is often to just stick it in the ground and see. In the worst case, what can happen? It doesn’t work, you learn something, you try again. This approach has uses well beyond the flower bed.
How it goes
the Royal Horticultural Society has a database of local gardening groups and It’s Your Neighborhood groups while the BBC has an excellent resource for people looking to create a community garden. Have a look too Social Farms & Gardens, a charity that provides community gardeners with advice, funding, and training. The National Allotment Society has helpful tips for finding a quota. Garden organic‘s Heritage Seed Library and Seed sovereignty are good places to find unusual seeds to sow once you have your spot. If you want to visit a garden without digging it up, check out these National Open Gardens Program – It describes notable private gardens to visit across the UK and raises funds for health organizations. Try Christopher Lloyd’s 1997 The Well-Tempered Garden, a classic that has proven its worth for new gardeners. If you’ve got visions but don’t have a place, try Alice Vincent’s book Rootbound to see how the author came to urban gardening. Robin Lane Fox’s Thoughtful Gardening offers practical advice and adds meditative and enlightening anecdotes from art and literature. Poppy Okotcha’s The Earth Food Handbook and website are fascinating accounts of the gardener’s work creating an edible and medicinal woodland garden in Devon.