Lessons From the Garden

The small rituals of tending to plants can connect us to the rhythms of the natural world — and a sense of personal renewal.

Article by Joseph Lew

Photography by Iryna Kostsenich.

Almost two years ago, when news of the New South Wales wildfires had just started rolling in, I dug out two 1 x 2 metre patches in my backyard and planted marigolds and cherry tomatoes. That same summer, when crimson flames filled every television screen and the cries of native wildlife were all I could hear, I returned over and over again to my garden to watch as my tomato plants flowered, then bore fruit.

In the time since, through six lockdowns, moments of great upheaval and personal difficulty, I’ve found solace in those four square metres. I’ve planted cucumbers in the summer, cauliflower in the autumn, and bok choy and allium just before winter. While the rest of life feels at a standstill, my little patch of green has provided escape from this stalling touch. When time seems to turn into one big blur, the rhythm of the garden serves as a way for me to distinguish one day from another.

Two decades ago, the World Health Organisation started to push the notion of “active ageing”. Synonymous with positive or healthy ageing, the term referred to the idea of ageing well. Determined on an individual and subjective level, this definition took into consideration physical, psychological and social components. For most, being able to participate in activities that they deemed meaningful was a significant factor in whether they saw themselves as ageing well. One of these “meaningful activities” that commonly cropped up: gardening.

When researchers looked at why gardening was so popular, the theory of biophilia emerged. “Biophilia is the idea that humans are innately drawn to the natural world, which offers restorative benefits,” Nancy Pachana, a professor at the School of Psychology at the University of Queensland, explains. “It’s because people evolved in nature as opposed to the built environment.” In the mid 1980s, researchers at a suburban Pennsylvanian hospital found that surgical patients who stayed in rooms overlooking nature had shorter postoperative stays compared with those with views of a brick facade.

Pachana has been researching the positive ageing phenomenon for the past 20 years. Her own garden, located on a small acre-and-a-half property just outside Brisbane, is filled with natives such as sheoaks and grevilleas, and serves as a medium for her birdwatching hobby.

When we speak, the first thing she does is introduce me to the Japanese concept of forest bathing. The phrase is one that illustrates itself: complete immersion in nature, almost as if you’re bathing in the greenery around you. “With nature, there’s certainly a sense of wellbeing, a sense of groundedness, which is the opposite of these current times of anxiety and uncertainty,” she tells me. “There’s a cycle of life, there are seasons, you see growth. There’s some predictability.”

Photography by Pok Rie.

Although gardens come in all different sizes, from large acreages to simply pots on a balcony, a study in New Zealand found that this had no impact on the benefits reaped. “People had the same sense of nurturing and getting lost in the activity,” Pachana says. “Even with healthy older adults, this idea of having this meaningful activity of gardening was critical to their physical and psychological wellbeing.”

Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that horticultural therapy has emerged as a practice. Like art therapy, occupational therapy and music therapy, this new modality uses gardening to facilitate psychological and physical wellbeing. Falling under the banner of therapeutic horticulture, its definition is quite broad. “It can encompass anything from nutrition education and kitchen gardens to potting activities in aged care,” says Tara Graham-Cochrane, the president of the organisation Therapeutic Horticulture Australia. As a landscape architect, she channels this form of therapy “designing spaces for people to go out and connect with nature”.

Although I can’t define my own horticultural practice as therapy, there’s no understating its healing value. On days when I can’t help but stay in bed, cocooned in my doona, my mind instinctively returns to my garden. I think about the daffodils, hyacinths and freesias lining my driveway and the way their bulbs lie dormant most of the year, only shooting up with new life in spring. I think of the grubs that hide under my compost, wriggly, waxy, white things, which crawl out as iridescent green- and yellow-patterned fiddler beetles months later. Nature’s rhythms remind me of the transience of these low moments, allowing me not to feel guilty in taking time to transform.

And no matter what’s going on, every morning, I return to the same place. I water the plants, pull off the slugs, mulch the beds and dig up the weeds. I bathe in the smell of fertiliser and straw mulch, I pay attention to each bud of new growth. And in the few moments when I’m there, the rest of the world falls away.