By Kel Fox
Of all the moments in the Lord of the Rings epic, my favourite is when the hobbit Sam is tending plants in his garden and the narration is from Bilbo, also a hobbit, talking about his people:
“But where our hearts truly lie is in peace and quiet, and good tilled earth…for all hobbits share a love of things that grow.”
Our final post for our Earth-themed April is about gardening and the joy of connecting with the earth in this way. The love and wonder on Sam’s face in the scene is exactly how I feel, and if some of the Facebook gardening groups I belong to are any indication, how many of us feel when we are caring for plants and receiving the bounty of a lush garden. There are several factors to these good feelings. I believe gardening fosters a reverence for nature that connects us to the essence of being alive. Gardening, especially growing herbs, fruits and vegetables, gives us a greater appreciation for our food and provides a tangible reward for our efforts. Finally, gardening with bare hands and feet (safely) can have a physical and chemical effect on our bodies that promotes health and wellbeing.
The beauty and design of plant life is undeniable. The colours and textures of different leaves and petals are endless, showing nature in all its abundance and variation. A garden reminds us that there is a place for everyone and everything. The dandelion popping up in the pavement teaches us resilience. I feel a deep sense of awe when I look up into the branches of a Moreton Bay fig; wonder when I kneel down to peer at the face of a viola. The curl of a fern frond shows us that mathematics is the foundation of the universe. When I garden, I experience a connection to the universe that I don’t find in any other activity, not even yoga or beach swimming or walking in a forest. Those things are lovely, but they are not as involving as gardening. There is a sense, when gardening, of both being a part of this world and caring for it.
We care for ourselves too, if we are growing edible plants. Even a simple potted herb garden can provide this experience and once you’ve cooked with fresh herbs, you can never go back! Our relationship with food is an important part of our overall wellbeing. What we eat certainly affects our physical bodies, but also our emotional and mental states. It is rewarding to grow food, and I find I appreciate a meal much more if I have grown a part of it. It tastes fresher and feels special. We can also control how the food is grown, using organic fertilisers and pest control. We reduce the impact of ‘food miles’ – the environmental cost of transporting food products all over the country. All of this results in a greater respect and love for the Earth and its freely given abundance. It’s as if the Earth wants us to share and experience it first-hand.
Whether or not you think of the Earth as a living being, it certainly benefits us to physically engage with it. There are the bio-electrical benefits of being barefoot in the garden that I wrote about last week. Exposing bare skin to the sun for a short time produces Vitamin D, vital for calcium and phosphorus absorption and also implicated in mood (hence the ‘winter blues’). I also recently read an article that talked about the effect of exposure to soil microbes on mental health. Despite the fear around breathing in fertilisers and mulches, and we certainly advise caution where it is due, there is evidence that some of these microbes have a significant and substantial effect on improving mental health. I grew up breathing in horse manure and playing in the dirt and mud of the farm gardens with bare hands, and I have always loved the smell of freshly turned earth, but I had no idea about Mycobacterium vaccae, a substance found to be an extremely effective natural antidepressant that continues to work for up to three weeks after exposure. Exposure comes from getting bare hands into the soil and breathing the air of the garden (normally, you don’t have to bury your face in the dirt!). Gardening, it turns out, is possibly not even optional for wellness.
From reading this, it may seem like I have a flourishing paradise full to bursting with lush plant life, but I do not. I have a medium-sized backyard that contains only scruffy lawn and some hardy trees (but it’s largely dog-proof, which is the priority!). I grow herbs and palms in pots and have a small front garden that I’ve been trying to establish for the past two years with varying success. My point is, although the dream is to have a gorgeous cottage garden full of bees and ladybirds and nodding daffodils and I’ll probably move house before it happens, I still get great pleasure and enjoyment from my efforts. And the fresh oregano and thyme on a homemade pizza is worth all of it! So head to your nearest nursery, or come and visit Mayflower Orchids & Garden Centre (next door to the Café!), pick up a punnet of something pretty or tasty or both, roll up your sleeves and get some dirt under your fingernails. The Earth will love and reward you for it.
DISCLAIMER: We find this information interesting, but any implicit suggestion to garden without protective equipment is taken at your own risk. We are not advising you to expose yourself to injury or illness. Always use appropriate equipment when gardening, including boots, gloves, masks and sun protection if you feel you should. If you’re unsure, do further research, or ask your local nursery for advice.
Balch, Phyllis A. 2010. Prescription for Nutritional Healing. Penguin Books Ltd: London.
Grant, Bonnie L. 2018. “Antidepressant Microbes In Soil: How Dirt Makes You Happy.” Gardening Know How. Document on the Internet.