Therapy for the soul: What gardening taught me about nurturing my spirit
Gardening brings a sense of peace to my busy world. The act of tending to my plants allows me to escape into a world of possibilities.
My summer in Europe
I like to think I truly “discovered” gardening – kitchen gardening, especially – when I was 12. We were visiting family friends who lived in North Yorkshire, England, and they had a generous kitchen garden on their idyllic country property. I mean, I had gardened before. My whole life, really. Each year my sister and I had carefully split up the garden patch my dad tended with us and crafted our plans carefully on bits of looseleaf paper. She typically favored rainbows of colorful flowers while I squeezed in as many rows of veggies as I could. We had sunflowers taller than our garage and beets the size of our heads (which no one ever actually ate).
But it was in England that my 12yr old self had an epiphany. There, we were digging potatoes to fry for dinner that night and picking fresh raspberries to top our evening dessert (the ones we didn’t eat straight off the canes, at least). These people were growing FOOD, not just gigantic; inedible beets screened from view by some multi-color zinnias. I was hooked! It was many years before I had a yard of my own where I could really experiment. Blackberries were one of the first things I planted – something not allowed in my parents’ small square behind their garage. They were big and unwieldy and came up in places far from where I had first planted them, but oh my – those berries were even more delicious because I knew I grew them. The first spring in my new home, I even discovered that the back corner’s tree was a sweet cherry. Unfortunately, the tree promptly died after one incredible harvest, but that single harvest I managed to gather was delicious!
I tried something new to grow every year
Every year brought me a new list of things to try. Edamame. Parsnips. Strawberries. Some were big fat flops, but others performed well and were added to my regular gardening routine. I was running out of space and itching for more. My budget was small, so I learned to grow as much as I could from seed and divide perennials to fill in the house’s landscaping. I even learned to propagate from cuttings and tried everything from lavender to roses to hydrangeas, with a surprising amount of success. When we moved to a bigger, sunnier lot a few years later, even more options opened up. Soon I had more than 2 dozen miniature fruit trees strategically planted as an espalier fence at the back of my yard. Many of those trees I had grafted myself after attending a local workshop. I grew plenty of vegetables and learned how to preserve marinara sauce and green beans. My attempt at pickled cucumbers wasn’t a big hit, but pickled carrots have become one of my favorites. I even tried my hand at dandelion jelly – it tastes very much like honey, and my daughter can’t get enough. She now looks forward to each spring when we can harvest the sunny yellow flowers together, almost as much as she enjoys sneaking the jelly from the fridge by the spoonful.
My creativity was sparked
I am always pushing my limits, trying something new. I think that is my favorite part of gardening – the process of it. There is always something new to try somewhere, whether it be a new tomato variety (this year’s trials include Kellogg’s Breakfast and Black Cherry tomatoes), a new method of growing (I switched to no-dig and love it), or a special feature in my garden (rain gardens are in the works for this year). There are so many new things to try; I will never manage to fit it all into my own yard, try as I might. Thank goodness I get a fresh start each spring and a long cold winter to plan for it! I even love the physical aspect of gardening labor. My husband often tries to swoop to make a job somehow “easier,” but often, that isn’t necessarily what I want. I actually love the process of shoveling mulch into my wheelbarrow, pushing it across my yard, and carefully nestling it around my plants. I love turning my compost pile, shifting the decomposing material, discovering what hasn’t yet broken down and tucked it back in to keep composting, observing the bugs and fungi at work in the pile. Even weeding becomes an act of meditation. I get a real feeling of satisfaction cultivating my garden to disturb little weed seedlings as they compete with my own seedlings or from pulling a patch that has gotten out of hand. Because I try to follow organic practices, my yard is abuzz with multi-legged and winged creatures. I make sure to raise dill and milkweed each year, and we are rewarded with droves of swallowtails and monarchs that lay eggs on their respective host plants. We have raised their caterpillars inside some years, and other times just enjoyed them outside, checking on them daily. Of course, with caterpillars come birds; even if we are sad to see our special caterpillar friends eaten, we also enjoy seeing the birds so happy in our yard. Toads hide in damp spots, and the dragonflies and our resident bats help keep the mosquito population in check.
Rain barrels, compost bins and insects
Over the years, I have grown more in-tune with the changing patterns of the seasons. Spring rains can seem relentless sometimes, and my yard saturates and floods in places, sometimes for days. I am working on incorporating rain gardens that will add organic matter to improve water retention, increase drainage, add native habitat for birds and insects, and include flowers for us to enjoy. What a lot of benefits from one little spot! There is always so much to see, to do, to enjoy in the garden. It is the place I feel most at peace, even hard at work and coated in mud. I am always experimenting, rearranging, adding, or subtracting. When asked, “when do you think you’ll be done with the garden?” my answer is “Hopefully, never.”
Download my dandelion Jelly recipe below!