Madhuri Bhattacharya

For each of us in a community of gardeners, there was a certain moment in time when we changed from simply noticing and admiring plants to wanting to grow them ourselves. These moments happen for all sorts of different reasons. Perhaps we are the child of a keen gardening parent like me or we take up gardening because our grandparents had a garden full of plant memories that we want to recreate by planting tuberose by the clothes hoist or sweet peas/marigolds on special Day. Perhaps like me, we had just wanted to grow some of the familiar fruits and vegetables I knew, just as the great Asian market gardeners who were the first people to introduce cabbages, eggplant, bittergourd, chillies and sugarcanes when we lived in a spacious plot. Or we simply want to find out what the deal was about growing some of the things everyone else was talking about – like dinner plate gondhoraj* and perfect guavas.

Whatever the reason, there is always a moment and often an overwhelming reason that make people want to plant a garden. It goes without saying that plants and gardens do a lot to fill our lives with sights, smells and beauty. The spicy perfume of a carnation, the blowsy abundance of roses in high summer and the joy of bringing them inside to enjoy even when we are not in the garden – all these are ways a garden rewards its maker. However, non-gardeners do not always think of gardens as something that nurtures and even improves our mental wellbeing.

Lately, there has been an increased awareness of gardening as a way to good nutrition. We see during rains seeds and seedlings fly off the shelves at nearly the same speed as hand wash and toilet paper. I see this as a very human response to the changed conditions we found ourselves in during covid. We are after all descended from thousands of generations of gatherers and cultivators. Under stress, we turned to what was buried in our DNA. While some seasoned gardeners worried about the fact that a lot of seedlings and seeds will never going to last the distance, many more were reassured that gardening would soften the edges of a pain for some people at the very least.

This leads me to one of the major reasons for me to be in the garden for a minimum of an hour each day. I find gardening an absolute essential in terms of the comfort it brings to me when I am not feeling at my best. I first realized this when I nursed my mother for the last six months of her life a couple of years ago. Every time things got to be too much. I went out to the garden. Standing there quietly, touching a leaf here and a flower there took the hurt that I felt away little by little until there was acceptance. The garden with its endless cycles of decay and birth reminded me to be less selfish with my sorrow, less angry with my sense of having been let down somehow. It taught me to meditate on the fact that my parents are still with me and be mindful of every moment that we were passing through.

Meditation has long been recognized as one of the simplest forms of selfcare. Mindfulness is just one of the ways we can be more meditative. In its simplest form, mindfulness is the practice of being more aware of the thoughts and emotions that lead to our actions. Mindfulness helps us to cope better with stress and has been shown to improve emotional intelligence and self-awareness.

Unknowingly, gardeners often practice mindfulness while we are planting, weeding or simply planning – whether it is a potted display or perennial border. A gardener knows that the germination of a seed is no less engaging than the growth of a child and possibly more relaxing as mistakes are more easily forgiven. When in the garden, nothing seems to matter more than the act of planting seeds, pulling weeds or placing plants to create a picture.

For some people pruning roses is a major task. I used to think of it as an ordeal. Was I doing too much or too little? Did I remove the red growth with the three leaves or leave it as it was? I over thought and over complicated things till I stopped buying roses all together. In fact, it was only after arriving in Ooty /Kashmir with its traffic islands and carparks blazing with glorious roses that I began to look at roses again. I began what I can only describe as listening to the plants. Did the tree want its deadwood pruned? Of course it did! Did good air flow mean less black spot on the leaves later in the year? Certainly. And so I began to see pruning as less of a competitive sport and more of a care process for my roses. I took the time to really look at them. In short, I became mindful.

Gardening also makes us think of people, friends new and old. When I look at the green spears of easter lilies pushing up through the soil like a miniature army, I think of my father who very generously planted a large number of them some years back. When I look at the pink and yellow multi-coloured trumpets of jasmines/mums opening on summer or winter afternoons, I think of my father’s garden. My father grew them for grandma  s  gods. She is long gone but nothing can cloud my memory of the little trumpets opening all over her garden as the sun set each day over thirty years ago.

Gardening makes us measure time a little differently. We begin to think not in terms of two hundred and eighty characters to tap out and send into the world but in terms of weeks and months, even years. As the old proverb goes, the best time to plant a tree was yesterday; the second-best time is today. Technology has done irreparable damage to our attention spans; but gardening can help restore some of that, even if only temporarily at first. As our gardens grow, so does our ability to focus on the events within them.

Gardening asks us to think. How deep must this seed be planted? Does it require burying deep to keep it in darkness, unfurling its seed leaves till they are truly ready to face the sun? Or do we leave them lying on the surface exposed to sunlight and moisture so that they can take what they need? Does each seed enjoy being in close proximity with its fellow seeds or does it need to be carefully allotted its own spot in a kind of botanic social distancing? All these are facts a gardener considers without thinking of it as mindfulness, almost as second nature.

Lastly, gardening teaches us that life is precious. Each seed, plant and seed pod is important to the garden maker. How many other activities allow us to observe life at all its wonderful stages? It also teaches us to see life as ephemeral. A sudden storm, a hot day, a hungry possum – all these can bring a garden to its knees in a matter of hours. Yet the gardener does not stop gardening as a result, they simply spend a little time rethinking the strategies they have been using. They replant, using other plants, they paint their plants with chilli oil, they build enclosures around their special areas.

‘As children, we have all known what it is to be fascinated by something: to be so lost in watching ants hard at work, for example, that you don’t hear the call for dinner. The mushroom adventure is every bit as spellbinding. You switch off from all the day-to-day trivia on a mushroom hunt. The hunter-gatherer instinct is kindled and you are instantly transported into a unique enchanted world. Litt Woon Long in The Way Through the Woods credits her walks through the woods close to her home with helping her recover from her grief. For me and many other gardeners, gardening does much the same and keeps the child within us well and alive.

*Gondhoraj (or Gondhoraj lebu) is a fragrant lime. Gondhoraj (Sanskrit Gandh-Raj) means ‘king of aroma’ or ‘king of fragrance’.


Bio: Madhuri Bhattacharya is a closet writer and art enthusiast. She is interested in creative writing, poetry, short stories, translations, and travelling. She regularly distributes her time to write for them in magazines and journals. After a thirty year long career, travelogues and children stories occupy her the most. Armed Forces background makes her enthusiastic about adventure travels and spending time in the wild.

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