The dark of November always puts me in a contemplative mood. As I finish up the last of the gardening tasks of the year, I find myself wondering, “Why do people garden?” It’s hard, dirty work, often done in rain, cold or baking heat. But here in the Beach, we have many beautiful home gardens lining our streets.
So, why do we do it?
I did some digging around (sorry, that just popped out) and came up with a number of reasons, some of which may surprise you. See if any of them sound familiar.
Food, glorious food
“My garden must be productive,” one of my friends says firmly. She lives in the country and has a small greenhouse. She also likes to cook veggies and doesn’t eat a lot of meat. Food gardening, of course, has become a huge trend lately. The bulging millennial generation want to know what’s in their food and are deeply concerned about diet, nutrition and health. Just look at the number of gluten-free products stampeding onto store shelves.
People are also developing more sophisticated taste buds, so they’re growing their own exotic vegetables and herbs such as Japanese eggplant and Thai basil.
Another health-related reason for gardening is the need for exercise. A day of digging, kneeling, weeding and raking adds up to a heavy workout. Pruning hedges, shrubs and trees really builds up the arm muscles, too. Just ask any gardener about their day-after aches and pains. It’s all done in the fresh air and (sometimes) sunshine – much more inviting than a noisy, busy gym.
And then there’s mental health and balance. “Gardening is cheaper than therapy, and you get tomatoes,” as they say. When you really focus on grubbing up a dandelion root or on making just the right cut to shape a plant, you enter something close to a meditative state that shuts out everything else. Gardens played an important role in medieval monasteries, and I believe it wasn’t just as a source of food and medicine.
At the end of your work in the garden, you can see a visible improvement you’ve made (unlike many other kinds of work we do). That sense of achievement is part of the reason why gardening is included in rehab programs in mental health institutions and prisons. (For an entertaining example, see the charming movie Greenfingers, with Helen Mirren and Clive Owen.)
Just being around garden dirt fights depression, according to scientific studies. It sounds too good to believe, but some soil bacteria, called mycobacterium vaccae, affect mice the same way that antidepressants do. The bacteria stimulate the brain to release more serotonin, a kind of feel-good chemical our brains produce.
One study’s author, Dr. Chris Lowry from England’s Bristol University, says, “[These studies] leave us wondering if we shouldn’t all be spending more time playing in the dirt.” It’s not known whether Dr. Lowry is a gardener.
Earth, air, water, wildlife
Do I really need to say it? In case you’ve missed it somehow, gardens are the original eco-friendly activity (well, back before petrochemicals). The plants we grow suck in carbon dioxide and breathe out oxygen. They also control rainwater runoff. Just compare the street in front of a garden to the street in front of a driveway. If the plant is big enough, like an oak tree, it shades us from summer sun, lowering electrical demand.
Gardening has a profound effect on wildlife, too. Flower pollen feeds bees, who go on to work their magic on the crops we eat (no bees, no fruit). Those nasty bugs in the garden feed the birds, who also gobble bugs on food crops. The seeds on flowering plants are bird food, too, and shrubs shelter all kinds of critters.
A place to create
Last on my list is that gardening satisfies our need to create. Gardens themselves are often temporary artworks; I think of many that have been destroyed by development, renovations and disinterest from new owners. But their creators have the joy of making something beautiful out of nothing.
In fact, many artists have a symbiotic relationship with their garden. Think of Monet and his stunning paintings, of Beatrix Potter and her delightful watercolours of English cottage gardens. Closer to home, look at the many garden-inspired artists here in the Beach. “Many of my garden photos I use for colour inspiration in my work,” says local textile designer and weaver Lucille Crighton.
I’ll leave you with some words from my friend David Hobson, Waterloo gardener, writer and speaker: “I grow plants for many reasons: to please my eye or to please my soul, to challenge the elements or to challenge my patience, for novelty or for nostalgia, but mostly for the joy in seeing them grow.”
For me, that says it all.
Mary Fran McQuade is a hobby gardener and freelance writer