Digging in the Dirt: The Therapeutic Value of Gardening

by Don Laird, MS, NCC, LPC
Psychotherapist

Why gardening? It is a question I have been musing over for more than a few weeks as the days are growing longer and summer is in full bloom. Amid all the thoughts roving the terra nova of my consciousness, the act of gardening – excuse the pun, has taken root. By no coincidence, I began to reflect on gardening while standing in line at my local home improvement store, that vast warehouse of do-it-yourself paraphernalia that includes an overabundance of effects designed for the weekend landscaper.

On the surface, the subject of gardening appears fairly innocuous, but dig a bit further and what is uncovered is a rich topography of metaphor and meaning that spreads deep and wide. Arguably, the pragmatic reasons for why people garden are to eat and to improve the curb appeal of their homes. If you survive on the vegetation from your garden or fancy an attractive lawn, it is easy to understand these primary motives. However, why the obsession? Our agrarian way of life ended around the same time industry began seeing dollar signs in the valleys and rivers that shape this region, and we never looked back. Sort of.

According to Christianity, humanity started in a garden. Buddhists create gardens to allow nature to fuse with their surroundings. The Babylonian’s imagined a “garden of the gods.” Almost every major palace and government building has a garden. So why all the attention to something we can only do a few months out of the year based on our temperate climate zone?

I believe one of the reasons people love gardens and the act of gardening is that while we have a desire to progress and develop in a contemporary milieu there is, deep within us, a primordial requisite for human beings to join with nature. In short, we are driven to make something, to grow something, apart from ourselves. Hence, the garden, a small path for nature to reenter our existence becomes that something. Being in nature connects us with our earliest evolutionary development.

Gardens remind us that we still care, and that we are capable of nurturing and cultivating the earth in a peaceful fashion. The garden stands in contrast to our collective, destructive patterns of behavior. Ancient philosophers viewed gardens as a means of self-actualization and enlightenment. Thus, gardening nourishes a natural need within us to create order, structure and beauty. The garden becomes the conduit between the self and the natural world.

From a practical standpoint, gardening is definitely a healthy habit that promotes physical exercise, helps the environment, and improves our diet. So go – get your garden on – weekend warrior. What you may view as a hobby has a history that serves to improve the current state of our individual and collective wellbeing.