A Public Sphere for Poetry, Nature, and Politics
Last year, Eva and I hired a contractor to remove the asphalt from our backyard which for years had been used as a woodlot and a basketball court. The soil underneath the asphalt turned out to be the hard yellow clay commonly found on the Western Pennsylvania mountain where we live – unsuitable for growing anything except a few hardy weeds. After an unfortunate experience with a professional landscaper, we decided to design and build the garden ourselves, a decision we haven’t regretted.
This year we’re planting blueberry, serviceberry, elderberry, sage, basil, tomato, oregano, rose, zinnia, lavender, and dogwood. Along the edge of the property, we’ve kept – and encouraged — wild herbs such as dandelion, lambs quarter, and lemon balm. With each planting, we dig up the hard rocky soil and amend it with manure, topsoil, mulch, lime, peat moss, and kitchen compost. We’re also building raised beds, stone paths and a patio. We’re looking to install a few inexpensive sculptures. Perhaps someday we’ll put in a fountain.
Although we’re only one year into a five year project, we’ve already had a few failures: the raspberry and blackberry canes we planted have died, and it’s clear we need to solve some drainage issues, perhaps by building more raised beds.
Landscaping is difficult and sometimes brutal work. Swinging a pickax to break up the hard rocky ground, hauling dirt and bricks in a wheelbarrow, weeding and cultivating the soil, worrying about rainfall and drainage…. So why do it?
First, we enjoy the work. Gardening, especially building a garden from scratch, requires imagination and creativity. Edgar Allan Poe claimed that the Poetic Principle is seen most clearly in the art of landscaping. And there’s no joy like seeing something grow from a seed or cutting to a healthy flowering plant. Nothing in the world tastes better, or is more nutritious, than a fruit or vegetable that you’ve grown in your own garden.
Besides the emotional, artistic and spiritual rewards of gardening, there are also health benefits:
Gardening reduces stress, helping to prevent immune-deficiency, circulatory problems, and heart disease.
It improves self esteem: there’s no more tangible measure of one’s ability to change the world than to nurture a plant from seed to fruit-bearing.
It’s good exercise. It strengthens the upper body, especially the hands and arms, and it improves dexterity.
Working in a garden involves problem solving and sensory awareness, helping to prevent dementia and Alheimer’s. In fact, researchers have found that daily gardening reduces the risk for dementia by 36%.
Gardening helps with immune regulation. The Vitamin D that your skin manufactures from sunlight helps you fight off colds and flu, and the dirt under your fingernails contains friendly bacteria, such as Mycobacterium vaccae which has been found to relieve symptoms of psoriasis, allergies and asthma — all of which may be caused by an out-of-balance immune system.
It alleviates depression and other mental illness. The growing field of horticultural therapy is founded on the well-established therapeutic connection between gardening and mental health. The therapeutic properties seem to be strongest in a garden that contains a combination of food-producing, scented, and flowering plants so that multiple senses are stimulated. A comfortable chair or bench where the gardener can rest and enjoy the sensations seems to help as well. Also, getting sweaty seems to have a benefit: elevated body temperatures are correlated with increased feelings of well-being.
When Eva and I sit on our patio, resting from our labors while enjoying a glass of lemonade, we’re getting more than just a pleasant view. The garden nourishes our bodies and spirits in many different ways. The biologist Edward O. Wilson calls this experience “biophilia”. We’re instinctively drawn to other living things, and we benefit from being aware of the web of life as a whole.
Copyright 2016 Michael Simms. Note: The list of health benefits is based on the research of Robin Jacobs.