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Gardening as therapy

I have always wanted to be a gardener… One of those ladies in wide-brimmed straw hats (don’t have one) with a basket full of tools (don’t have one) and an encyclopedic knowledge of plants (don’t have one). But what I do have, all of a sudden, is a passion for gardening as therapy. Here’s how I think it works:

Gardening, to me, is the ultimate act of hope. You’re planting something in the hope that it grows, and flourishes. In the hope that you’ll be around to see it grow and flourish. One of the things that has been so hard for me since my mom died is this sense that anything could happen at any time – that the rug can be pulled out from under you with no warning whatsoever. Gardening counteracts that feeling by making an investment into the earth: by giving hope to a long and abundant future.

Gardening as therapy

It is also wonderfully soothing (when my kids don’t help!) and very sweet (when they do). I love the process of pulling weeds out of the ground, of patting soil down around a new plant, of seeing thirsty earth suck up water. I love the way it smells. I love the productive way I feel when I look back on an hour’s work and can see the difference I’ve made – so little in our lives gives immediate tangible feedback like that. And I love the sense of making something more beautiful… I bought myself a (surprisingly comfortable) concrete chair and have been creating a serene nook in the dappled shade of the granadilla vine. Every time I visit a friend, I’ll ask if I can steal some succulent cuttings and plant them in this nook, and yesterday I bought some soft green groundcover that will grow between the grey stones. It’s so pretty!

On some level, although I’ve loved gardening since we moved into our house four years ago (and before then, when it was all pot plants in our flat), I’ve never felt like a real gardener. I once went on a wonderful garden walk at the Cellars Hohenort Hotel where two ladies in their seventies showed us all the things they loved about the expansive gardens. I asked them when they learnt so much about plants and they said it was only after they turned 40, and they just picked it up along the way. I’ve thought of them often, but I assumed that real gardeners needed the tools and the hat and the knowledge of how to mix compost to the right acidity and dig the right size holes etc etc.

What I realised this weekend is that I have no love for those kinds of plants. I don’t want to have an encyclopedic knowledge of fussy plants because those aren’t the plants I want to grow. When we moved into our house, our garden was essentially a beach: beach sand and weeds with some lavender on the sides. Now it’s a thriving green garden with grass and lavender and succulents and aloes galore and salt bush and a granadilla vine that is so abundant I made granadilla cordial yesterday. I should take some photos, actually, because it’s so easy to forget how things used to look…

My gardening style is slapdash and full of love. I plant things where I think they will look beautiful, and have learnt to plant them with friends rather than space things out because lonely plants don’t thrive. I don’t dig appropriately sized holes or use enough compost, but somehow things survive. And when they don’t, I learn a little something. I know a lot about succulents and hardy, drought-resistant plants, and I have a lot of respect for them – and wonder at what they can endure. How is this not gardening as therapy?

I think that’s the other reason I love gardening at this time of my life. Plants – the right kind of plants – are perfect illustrations of resilience. At my parent’s house, there’s a concrete retaining wall filled with cement bags of builder’s sand: completely devoid of nutrients. When I was home last month, I saw succulents not only growing but flowering as they hung onto a wall without any food or water. Flowering!

And I suppose that’s what it boils down to. Gardening makes me feel peaceful and purposeful and hopeful, but it also helps me feel resilient in the face of a hard time. Yesterday afternoon, I was drinking a cup of tea while watering the verge (the verge we transformed from a patch of scrubby beach sand just a few months ago). The mug was from my mom, so I was thinking of her while I watered. As I finished my tea and put the cup down, I heard her voice say quite clearly: “That’s enough, now.”

And I know exactly what she meant. It’s enough digging deep and honouring my sadness and pressing on the bruise every day. It’s time to look up and look forward and have hope for what my plants – and my everyday life – will look like in the future.

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