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The Psychology of Gardening

Good reasons why gardening is so popular.

Worldwide, gardening is among the most popular hobbies, yielding not only herbaceous but psychological bounty. That’s true from the first moment you contemplate planting something:

Deciding to garden is to choose respite from our ever more transactional, practical priorities. Sure, gardening has a practical side—for example, harvesting some tomatoes (Orange Paruche is my favorite) or zinnias (I like Dreamland Red) but few people garden primarily for the harvest. It’s to take a little time to breathe.

Too, gardening allows realistic fantasies: six-foot corn stalks (I like Honey ‘N Pearl,) living rose bouquets (like with Black Magic,) or a yard that will make the neighbors “Ooh!” Such fantasies grow with each stroll through a nursery, each turn of a plant or seed catalog’s page, and even as you drive through neighborhoods, perhaps tonier than you could afford, but whose plants and garden design you can. How wonderful that you can buy seeds for pennies a piece, each of which has the potential to make a fantasy come true.

A core cause of stress is lack of control. Most of us have more control over our garden than over our worklife or even home life. As the fathers in The Fantasticks sing, “Plant a radish, get a radish, never any doubt. That’s why I love vegetables you know what they’re about…But if your issue doesn’t kiss you, then I wish you luck. For once you’ve planted children, you’re absolutely stuck!”

Of course, fantasy doesn’t always become reality, even if we’ve done everything right--Weather can negate all. Learning to cope with flora might not help us deal with fauna failure but it can’t hurt. Just maybe those frequent plant failures might help us develop a habit of deciding if we can learn from the failure and then quickly moving on to try again, perhaps with a different kind of “plant” or a different approach to the same type.

For some gardeners, harvest is what it’s all about—the reward for all that planning and effort. But for many others, it can be a mere cherry atop the sundae. After all, they say life’s in the journey.

But gardening’s most profound if overacknowledged psychological effect is its incessant reminder of life’s cycle of birth, renewal, and death, usually in a shorter cycle than we experience with humans. In April, the marigold (I like Bonanza Yellow) is but a seed, in July it radiates in living color, and in fall, it dies.

Yet marigolds (and poppies such as the surreal albeit evanescent Drama Queen) leave seed to sleep in winter that may be reborn the next spring. Other plants don’t leave a legacy.

Plants don’t have a choice—they’re genetically preordained. But perhaps gardening’s final lesson for us is that we do have a choice. When we return to the earth, do we leave a legacy? And if so, what kind?

More from Marty Nemko Ph.D.
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