Gardening for the spirit

When I go into the garden with a spade and dig a bed, I feel such exhilaration and health that I realize I have been defrauding myself in letting others do for me what I should have done with my own hands.”  ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

IMG_0582Throughout my life, gardens have provided many spiritual lessons and moments of refuge.

Among them was the fern garden my Scottish grandfather tended in his back yard on Detroits west side — an oasis that restored his spirit during the sad summer my grandmother died. The essay I wrote about that garden was published in both British and American editions of Reader’s Digest magazine, and is included in my book, Writing Home.

Today, my own garden is so much more than a plot for herbs and perennials. Working the soil, I’m often mentally untangling one of my elderly mother’s health problems. Or, while preparing a bed for basil and rosemary, I might be digging my way through a stubborn case of writer’s block. Or just daydreaming.

As I reminded my husband recently, gardening is the best therapy I know. (The money I ought to save for a psychiatrist is well spent on garden gadgets and plants at the local nurseries.)

Along these lines, several authors have written inspiring books on gardening as soul work. Here are a few of my favorites.

Praised as a hymn to nature, Diane Ackermans Cultivating Delight (HarperPerennial Library) is a sensuous garden memoir. With the keen eye of a naturalist, Ackerman recounts her back-yard discoveries through the seasons, including the time she uncovered a tiny frog asleep inside a tulip.

“By retreating farther and farther from nature,” Ackerman warns, “we lose our sense of belonging, suffer a terrible loneliness we cant name, and end up depriving ourselves of what we need to feel healthy and whole.”


“No matter how saddened I become by the events of life, when I see the world as a garden, I feel better,” writes author Julie Moir Messervy in The Magic Land: Designing Your Own Enchanted Garden (Macmillan). A landscape designer and consultant, Messervy also sees the garden as a perfect outlet for personal growth. Her book includes exercises to plan your own paradise, whether you want an elaborate storybook garden with a gazebo or a Zen-like oasis. I used many of her tips when I plotted my own Japanese garden a few years ago.

The Sanctuary Garden (Fireside) reminds us that any garden can be a place of reflection. Authors Christopher Forrest McDowell and Tricia Clark-McDowell are founders of the Cortesia Sanctuary for Natural Gardening and Healing in Eugene, Oregon. Their illustrated guide provides tips on attracting wildlife as well as ideas for creating space for prayer and meditation.

“One of the most powerful examples of our relationship to the land came to me when witnessing the end of the war in Bosnia,” writes McDowell. “I was touched to learn that the first act of many of the citizens of Sarajevo was to till and plant their gardens.”

So what are you waiting for? Dust off your garden boots, grab a trowel, ditch your bad mood, and dig in.

— Garden photos (copyright) by Cindy La Ferle —

8 thoughts on “Gardening for the spirit

  1. I enjoy my small flower garden, so I can only imagine what pleasure your garden gives you, Cindy. My best friend in town plants a vegetable garden each year, and hearing the delight in her voice about how it’s doing can make my day.

  2. It’s so funny, because yesterday I was just reflecting on how much I actually hate and stink at gardening…and was guessing someone else felt just the opposite and was waxing poetic about it. Please don’t take offense! I just don’t have a green thumb, and while I don’t mind pushing a mower, I forget to water pretty flowers, so they wilt by the first heat wave; grass growing where it shouldn’t is a bane from my childhood and continues into adulthood; dirt and thorns seem to crawl through my cheap gloves and lodge in my fingernails. I must be missing some gene!

  3. Perfect timing, Cindy! My gardener friend’s birthday is coming up and I had no idea what to get her. now I’ll be wrapping up one of these books.

    She has a marvelous green thumb and starts her day bright and early before work watering and tending to her vegetable garden. I’m lucky enough to share in her harvest…. Maybe I’ll get her all three books!

    xo jj

  4. My paternal grandmother used to say that she loved “playing in the dirt,” which was code for working in her flower beds. A few years after she passed away, I had read an article that spoke to the health benefits of the dirt actually touching one’s skin! There is a calming affect – physically, spiritually, mentally and emotionally. Just wish I had her talent! 🙂

  5. Hey Lynne — I think your grandma was spot-on. And that explains why mud facials work too, don’t you think? Thanks for a great reminder!

    I also think aromatherapy plays into it somehow, too. I am energized by the scent of things growing — especially in my herb garden!

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