How gardening heals
While caring for her ailing father, a journalist and her family have discovered how gardening can do wonders for your spiritual and psychological healthBy Patricia Dawn Robertson
It was early July 2004, peak gardening season, when we moved from the bustling world of Calgary to the simple life in a Saskatchewan farm town, where we rented a house. My partner, Grant, and I were both novice gardeners, but we planted some lettuce seeds in the backyard with a rusty old hoe borrowed from a kind neighbour. Our late-season garden produced nothing that year, but was a statement of purpose and self-sufficiency. And we vowed “next year” as we enviously surveyed the rolling hills of potato plants and tall stalks of corn around our newly adopted town.
What I didn’t realize was that the garden would also become a steadying influence in my life. It would provide me with a familiar site where I could retreat to contemplate the exigencies of adult life—when a parent starts to need you to care for him. My practical side liked the idea of no more grocery store checkouts, but I didn’t anticipate, or understand, the psychological and spiritual benefits that growing plants offers.
The following summer, we moved down the street to a rambling wreck of a house of our own. It boasted a maple-lined lot with a four-thousand-square-foot garden. Much to our delight, it was a remarkable growing season.
We shared our bumper crop with my surprised parents when we visited them in Manitoba. When Grant pulled a massive burlap sack filled with beets, potatoes and carrots from the hatchback, my mother, Betty, was confounded. “You grew this?” she asked. The daughter who’d sniffed derisively at her mother’s suburban gardening efforts was now a green thumb. “I did!” I replied with a laugh. She looked at me with pride. “Well, I’ll be. Who knew you’d take up gardening?” She beamed. “It reminds me of my own mother’s garden.” That was all it took. I was hooked.
Since then the garden has become my refuge, my solace and a brilliant place to witness the steady progress of our vegetables, flowers and perennials. I relish the satisfying “pop” when I pull a stubborn weed.
Before I became an impassioned gardener, I was immersed in another challenging vocation: writing. When I first took up the pen 12 years ago, it was with the tacit understanding that my retired sportswriter father, John, would be there to prop me up at every halting stage of my so-called career. Since I’d left Winnipeg for Calgary in 1997, my dad and I had maintained a dynamic phone relationship, and I assumed he’d always coach me. But by spring 2007, our long chats had turned into halting weather reports and stories about my border collie, Laddie. Dad was soon diagnosed with dementia. He can no longer follow complex things and is confused when I mention work. He can’t read the paper, and isn’t interested in TV sports. He needs home care and my mother’s full attention.
I’m confronted daily with a turbulent new era of print journalism while I have to process my dad’s decline. It’s as if the two trajectories are in synch. Some days when I call, Dad thinks he’s in Baltimore covering the Blue Jays instead of perched on his deck at Winnipeg Beach. It’s painful to witness, and as the distance between us grows, I take my grief to my garden.
The sight of a freshly weeded row of beets may not restore my father’s memory, but it gives me a sense of order in the midst of my emotional turmoil. The garden grants me much-needed perspective when it comes to tending to my uncertain writing career. While my dad used to provide me with his invaluable “long view,” I now seek out the soil to gain traction when I feel stuck. If I feel really hopeless about the future, I commune with the rogue sunflowers, which now pop up annually, as if by magic, in various spots. Their unexpected appearance renews my optimism.
As a restless soul, I’m also aware of the spiritual significance of planting perennials. They signify rootedness and a connection to the land. For them, it’s all about commitment and the endurance test of staying at one address for a long time. My mom is a deeply pragmatic woman. She rarely planted perennials; she favoured colourful petunias and tomatoes. After all, we moved every four years, as Dad’s ambitions carried him, and us, across the country to Montreal, Toronto and back to Winnipeg Beach again to retire. Sometimes he’d buy her a pink rosebush for Mother’s Day and she’d plant it, knowing full well she’d soon leave it behind.
My folks have happily resided in the same condo complex for 20 years now. Last spring, there was some talk of installing a ramp to ease my father’s way up the front stairs. When the carpenter pointed out that some lilac bushes would have to go, Mom balked. “I don’t want to have to pull them out,” she confessed to me one night on the phone. I understood. There was the inevitable change of aging and Dad’s dementia, something we could not ignore, and then there was the wilful destruction of a mature bush.
Dad would have to muster the strength to climb the stairs; the lilacs were staying. And he does…for now. But we know that soon my dear father will need more care. The topic is much contested in our family, so I’ve learned to practice restraint. But I’m learning that you don’t have to fight every battle, and when you hit an obstacle, weeding your garden gives you a sense of forward motion even if you are mired in a family scenario where you feel helpless and powerless. And if all else fails, you can always offer up some fresh vegetables.
Today, I’m surveying our harvest to take home; my mother put in an order for zucchinis and I don’t want to disappoint her. Meanwhile, Grant is pickling cukes. Our harvest this year included strawberries from plants given to us by our neighbour Gordie, who recently—and reluctantly—moved to a seniors’ home. “Don’t worry, Gordie,” I reassured him as we plucked the plants from his shrinking garden and placed them in our old Volvo. “You can visit them any time. We’re not going anywhere.”
This article was originally titled "The Growing Pains of Change” in the September 2010 issue of Best Health. Subscribe today to get the full Best Health experience—and never miss an issue!—and make sure to check out what's new in the latest issue of Best Health.