Why Are Gardens So Good for the Soul?

January 17, 2020

Seven ways of finding comfort and healing in a garden.

When we’re wounded in body, mind, or spirit, we’re often drawn to the natural world as a place to heal. For some, it’s a walk in the woods or along the shore. For many of us, a garden is our place of healing.

“Gardens can aid in physical, mental, and emotional healing in myriad ways,” says Chris Fehlhaber, assistant horticulturist at Chanticleer Garden in Wayne, Pennsylvania.

I was surprised by these healing effects when I constructed my own garden a year ago. I was in the middle of a long bout with then-undiagnosed toxic mold illness and felt drawn to build a vegetable garden in my backyard—not because I expected it to fix what ailed me, but because I enjoyed gardening and needed more hobbies.

There was something about being outside that felt deeply life-giving, even in the dry 20-degree February air as I built the raised beds. I found myself easily letting go of my constant preoccupation with the mysterious symptoms that had limited my activities. As I filled the beds and knelt on the ground with my hands in the soil, my mind cleared and my spirit was refreshed.

Writer Margo Rabb experienced her own form of healing from prolonged grief in the garden that Fehlhaber tends, which she shared in her New York Times article, “Garden of Solace.” I spoke with the two of them on the Think Act Be podcast as we explored what gives gardens their healing power. Here are seven themes that emerged from our discussion.

You Can Be Yourself

In a world that encourages us to put on a façade, a garden is a refreshingly honest place. “One of the things we really like about plants is that they’re totally honest with us,” Fehlhaber sais. “A plant will tell you if it’s not getting enough sun or it’s getting too much water.”

The honesty we find in a garden encourages our own honesty and authenticity. “If everything around you is being honest and presenting themselves as they are, you let your own guard down,” Fehlhaber said. “As you drop your defenses, that can lead to healing.”

Part of being yourself is being free to feel what you feel. “For me, it was a place where sadness didn’t feel like something to be ‘fixed,’” Rabb said. “We want to believe that grief is something you get over, but you don’t really. It changes forms and it’s cyclical and it comes and goes, but you don’t ‘get over it.’ This was a place where you could feel sadness in all its complexity. I could feel those complicated feelings and just let them be.”

As we allow our defenses to drop and let ourselves be honest, we open to the truth of our experience and of who we are. What is a sanctuary if not a place to be yourself?

You Can Slow Down

When you enter a garden, time tends to slow down. Your mind and body relax as you step away from the daily bustle, and you can connect with your spirit. Gardens invite us to drop the constant doing and allow ourselves to just be.

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