When Gardening Leads to Enhanced Personal Healing

Were you born without a green thumb? Luckily, gardening is a learned skill and in my opinion, one worth exploring. For the folks who believe they are incapable of sustaining plant life, while simultaneously being called to the craft, give it a little time and effort, and you might just develop your green thumb. It’s quite possible that if gardening is calling to you, it’s your intuition leading you in a beautiful direction toward healing and joy.

Personally, gardening has offered me endless lessons and delight, and it’s enhanced my healing journey. In my life, trauma and substance abuse formerly led to chaos and lack of clarity, and gardening has helped open a new understanding of wellness. This medium of gardening has enabled me to slow down for my plants and myself. The process has taught me confidence; it revealed community, as well as the magic of nature. All of this insight has helped me to help me.

A sunflower standing tall and proud

Farmer’s Market Dreams

Several years ago, I was a barista at a bustling cafe across from Chicago’s largest farmers market. For all of time, I’lI consider myself lucky for this juxtaposition because it got me acquainted with farmers, some of the most beautiful people in the world, and with seasonal, locally grown food that tasted unlike anything I had previously encountered. Through this market, I learned about garlic scapes and fresh tomatoes. I discovered micro-greens, nasturtium, and edible flowers, oh my! All of these flavors, colors, and smells, awakened me and took me for a an amazing ride.

After engaging with the farmers market, I became inspired to grow something of my own. First, I began with basil on my windowsill, which I successfully killed. Upon reflection, it was either that I forgot to water it, or I overwatered it, but I can’t quite remember. Although, I do remember that it was common to see struggling plants in my home. As I sit here, years later, I can say with confidence, that time spent caring for plants and food is a lesson in cause and effect. The growing and nurturing process is learning about what works and what doesn’t work. The experience itself is invaluable.

Plants Are Mirrors

Eventually, I managed to keep a basil plant alive, so I decided to add chives to the mix. Over time, I could see the parallel between my personal life and my plant life. What I mean by this, is that the well being of my plants is often a reflection of my well being. At times, when I find myself excessively busy and running around, or not taking enough time for myself, it shows in my plants, both edible and otherwise, and of course, it shows in myself. There is no shame here. The lesson is gathered and carried while moving forward. When I did manage to have a thriving basil or chive plant, they gave me pure delight with a simple pluck of freshness for my meal.

A handful of Borage flowers

Visions of Gardening

As time went on, I became curious about growing more vegetables. I wanted leafy greens, cucumbers, and tomatoes. At the time, I was living in a tiny studio on the north-side of Chicago. There was no rooftop access, no outdoor space, and the management was a stickler for hanging planters outside of our windows.

After some searching, I discovered Peterson Garden Project. This non-profit manages several community gardens on the north-side of Chicago and aims to teach everyone how to grow food. Lucky for my community, they offer resources and education, helping to set folks up for success. On top of all of that, they host plant sales and seed swaps with free seeds, even if you have none to swap. Pay for the plot, and it’s yours for the season to do as you (organically) wish.

Lessons Emerge

Looking back, I remember this new endeavor causing me feelings of insecurity. I worried that I would fail to grow anything at all. Habits of substance abuse and a history of running from obstacles as a means of coping had manifested into fear-based living.

My first garden plot was three miles from my apartment. I would bike or walk with some bags in tow to carry out my weeds and waste after a day of gardening. Just steps from the garden there was this great Serbian cafe owned by a mother-daughter duo. Sadly, this spot has shut down, but I had made it a habit to stop in for coffee and crepes, and I became friendly with the owners. I expressed my nerves about the gardening season to come. One of the gals told me to keep showing up and give the plants time and attention. Easy, right? Yes, it is that easy. Of course, there are variables out of our control: weather, temperature, rodents who want a little nibble, but she was right. I showed up, I gave the plants time, love, and attention, and boom! Food was made available to me.

Green beans

Undoubtedly, gardening served as an avenue for me to gain confidence. It’s a magical way to get involved, take control of the reigns, and try something fun and new with little pressure and low stakes. There sure is nothing like learning a new skill that can also sustain life.

The Lessons Go Even Deeper

A while back, I read The Body Keeps The Score which offers a wealth of knowledge on post-traumatic stress and has offered great insight into my own experience with trauma.

The author, Bessel Van Der Kolk, a psychiatrist, and researcher mentions a time in the 1960s when he worked at the Massachusetts Mental Health Center. This job made him responsible for organizing recreational activities for patients, most of whom had experienced traumatic events in their lifetimes. While he was out on these field trips, he often observed the patients to be clumsy as well as acting helpless when their assistance would have been helpful. For instance, when Van Der Kolk would begin to set up tents for the night, his patients would helplessly fall back and watch him do the work. (24) This observation stuck out to me as a reaction I identified with at the time.

In my life, I often found myself freezing, even in seemingly non-threatening situations. If someone needed my help, I would quietly step back, letting others take the lead and do the work. I wanted to learn how to take charge and trust myself. Gardening turned out to be a perfect modality to go about this. The process of designing the plot, and watching the fruit grow is a recipe for inner growth and trust-building.

Food Magic

Equally as important to confidence is the lesson of presence and joy. Time spent in the garden is time spent tenderly caring for plant babies and marveling at their beauty. The pleasure in plucking a cucumber from its vine is marvelous. The opportunity to witness green beans crawl up a trellis can cause a jaw to drop. Tomatoes are known to reintroduce folks to flavor especially when eaten right in the garden. I believe these experiences to be food magic, and they offer endless reasons to celebrate and enjoy this planet.

A good haul: tomatoes, beans, and kale

Stronger with Community

Upon reflection, I see that I did not about this alone. Along with every other profound moment of my life, there were resources and community all around me.

I understand that I am lucky to have a community garden right around the corner from my home. Does your town have anything like this? Is there space somewhere that you can use? The internet offers loads of resources on building beds, finding soil and mulch, and gardening for a low cost. In my experience, plant people are generous and often share seeds, starters, and cuttings, often for free. Keep your eyes peeled and search social media or Craigslist. If space is limited, I would bet there are people out there who are willing to share the space they have. Perhaps they’ll want money, or maybe produce, or perhaps they’ll lend it out for free. It’s just a matter of finding them. Solutions are out there.

As I said, I encourage you to give this a try, especially if it is calling out to you. There’s a reason your gut is telling you to pursue this path. Perhaps because it’ll bring you what you need.

You might also like