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Horticultural Healing

Why and how to garden.

Source: Pixabay

Horticultural therapy is a psychotherapy modality, but plain ol' gardening, wisely done, can be therapeutic.

Gardening is America's number-one hobby and for a good reason. Words like "amazing," awesome," and "miracle" are tossed around too easily. They should be reserved for growth, perhaps most so in humans.

But without childbirth's pain, we can see the miracle of growth in a plant. In just two or three months, a plant goes from seed to, for example, a six-foot tomato warehouse, or the rose bush from bare sticks to a long-lived flower factory. Even if you're an atheist, it's spiritual and likely therapeutic.

Another of gardening's spiritual and likely therapeutic benefits is that it brings both life's transience and permanence into full relief. Annuals such as marigolds and zinnias compress life's birth, growth, and death into just two or three seasons. A hybrid tea rose bloom is nature's perfection but an evanescent perfection. Yet the rose plant renews its beauty for decades. Japanese maples and tree peonies outdo that, living a century.

Turning to the psychological, many, if not most, readers of Psychology Today spend much time on the abstract: fears, hopes, thoughts, ideas, plans. It's comforting, reassuring, to live a bit in the concrete. As the song from The Fantasticks goes, "Plant a radish, get a radish, never any doubt. That's why I love vegetables; you know what you're about." Even pulling weeds or giving a haircut to a wild-haired plant gives instant, clear-cut gratification that's rare amid our cogitations.

Equally concrete are gardening's exercise benefits. Instead of contorting ourselves in that modern-day torture chamber—the gym—gardening accomplishes your bends and stretches, and rather than pumping iron to no benefit, digging holes and carrying sacks of soil provide sufficient toning to all but Schwarzenegger aspirants. And if you're unable or unwilling to do all that weight lifting, hire it out, leaving the fun stuff for yourself: planting, harvesting, looking.

Finally, there's the bounty: the fruits literal or figurative, as in the rose blooms to bring into our inorganic homes or to give to others to signal fondness. My dad, into his 80s, grew tomatoes in our postage-stamp garden and then traipsed with basketsful to the neighbors and drove the rest to friends. I now carry on his legacy.

When I was growing up, a neighbor had a peach tree in the parking strip. Picking them ripe off the tree remains a special memory. Imagine your planting a peach tree and when the fruit is ripe, attaching a little sign: "Please take." Think of how much pleasure you'd give and get. At the risk of sounding cliché, it is better to give than to receive.

Squeezing the most juice from your gardening

Here are my votes for the most rewarding things you can grow: maximum pleasure with minimum sweat. Just give them sun, decent soil, water, and a little fertilizer. Unless you're excessively fastidious, none of the following varieties need be sprayed. Spraying isn't fun, let alone psychologically or spiritually rewarding.


In a landslide, the tomato wins my vote for the most gratifying thing you can grow. Buy a six-pack for under five bucks in a nursery or big-box store, and two or three months later, those shrimpy plantlets have zoomed into giant tomato machines that yield more tasty fruit than do supermarket types and at dramatically lower cost than at farmer's markets—I was shocked to visit one last year to find that they charged $3 per tomato!

And if you're just slightly more daring, you can grow even more delicious varieties. Top home-garden performers include Big Beef, Park's Whopper Improved, and Burpee's Bodacious, but my very favorite and a formidable taste-test winner is the orange-colored cherry tomato: Orange Paruche. Every year, I plant 50 tomato seeds, keep a few plants for myself, and give the rest to clients and neighbors. They love it and it costs me next to nothing. I put any extra plants out on the curb, and they're gone in a day or two. It feels good to see them gone.


They are the easiest, cheapest way to get nonstop color from spring through fall. Also available in six-packs, widely available top varieties include Bonanza (covered with 1" flowers) or the 3"-flowered Inca II or the new all-American winner, Big Duck, which has an exceptionally long flowering season. All are available in yellow, gold, or orange.


If you want to expand beyond yellow and orange, try zinnias, which come in ivory, pink, orange, red, and purple. Top varieties that are widely available in 4" pots or six-packs include Magellan Coral and Dreamland Red. They're a foot tall and covered with 3" flowers. Want a taller one? Try the two-foot, bold, and misleadingly named magenta with 4" flowers: Uproar Rose.


These have come a long way from the traditional orangey things. Today, try Calliope Dark Red (sold at Home Depot as Big Red). It quickly mushrooms into a three-foot circle of rich, deep red flowers.


Unless you live in a sunny, low-humidity area, it may not be worth growing roses—Most do poorly unless regularly sprayed with with an arsenal that would do Saddam Hussein proud. But the climate-fortunate should grow at least one classic hybrid tea rose. Its flower is among nature's most beautiful creations and makes a particularly touching gift.

These varieties look good without spraying: Julia Child (yellow), Pope John II (white), and Super Hero (pink). My favorite rose is Black Magic (velvety deep red), but unless you spray with fungicide , it will defoliate with blackspot. I won't spray, so I choose to live with a few months of bare-legged plants in exchange for the stunning, long-lasting flowers.


In winter, everything's moribund, with a notable exception: the viola, the smaller version of pansies. In this case, smaller is better, because pansies' larger petals tend to flop if the rain exceeds a drizzle. Two varieties I'd take with me to a (cool) desert island would be Denim (deep blue and white) and Morpho (blue and yellow). Both are widely available in six-packs in nurseries and maybe even in big-box stores.

Even in frosty climes, you can plant violas in March, although a hard frost will make them very sad. In temperate climates, you can plant them in November and have nonstop blooms through April or May.

The takeaway

There's a reason that horticultural therapy exists—It can be healing and has no negative side effects. Whether or not you need healing, is it time for you to start or expand your gardening?

I read this aloud on YouTube.