Gardening Is Therapeutic, Even When We Fail

I stood staring in horror and shock. ‘What happened to my jalapeno peppers?!’ I asked in disbelief. The leaves were missing from the plant and it appeared as though someone had taken a bite out of each pepper. I looked over at my two dogs suspiciously. The large dog had already trampled most of the zucchini in an overzealous attempt to catch a crafty little lizard. And just the other day I had caught the smaller dog pulling branches off the four o’clocks. But it was a pepper plant. I couldn’t imagine that even a terrier would indulge in something so spicy. ‘I’ll worry about it tomorrow,’ I thought, as I sleepily finished watering for the night. Little did I know that tomorrow I would discover just how therapeutic gardening can be, even when we fail.

The next morning I went out to my small garden, hoping that things would magically be okay. They weren’t. Leaves were missing from several more plants and there were significantly fewer peppers than there had been the day before. I stared frantically as I felt a sense of panic arise and wondered if I should scream or cry. Then I looked at the single tomato plant and gasped, as I noticed that the leaves had been completely stripped from the top of the plant and all the tomatoes had holes in them. Heart racing, I ran inside to grab my phone. I googled until I found pictures that looked like my damaged plants. Horn worms the website said.

How the Garden Teaches Us to Solve Problems in Life

I admittedly had not spent a lot of time in my garden, but that did not stop my joy at seeing small peppers and tomatoes emerge on my plants. I immediately googled what to do about the pests that were eating away at my garden. One website suggested that I spray them with soapy water. I filled a spray bottle and sprayed the plants until they leaned from the weight and soap dripped off the leaves. ‘There,’ I thought, ‘That should do it.’ I went back inside and sat down to sip some tea.

As I sat in the morning light it became apparent to me right away. The way I had just tackled the problem in the garden, was the same way I addressed problems in life. My first reaction is almost always one of denial, a sort of just hoping that problems will magically disappear. And then when they don’t, because problems rarely do, I generally panic and throw everything at them as though the problem is a fire that needs to be doused right away. I took another sip of tea and sighed. ‘Problems don’t just go away,’ I acknowledged. I picked up my phone again. The best way to rid the garden from pests was to pick them off individually and place them in a bucket of soapy water. I returned to the garden to look for to look for the worms, but I didn’t see any.

Gardening is therapeutic image showing damage to tomatoes
Photo by Christine John

Needing to Slow Down and Connect Both in Life and in the Garden

I came back inside and googled again. The worms may be difficult to see, the websites warned. I sighed as I realized what I needed to do. I went back outside and sat down next to the garden and quietly stared at the plants. As I sat there in the early sunlight, I began to feel calm, and then I spotted the first worm. I squeamishly plucked it off and dropped it into the bowl of soapy water. The longer I sat the more worms I found. It turns out that I had a full infestation. I spent the morning pulling the horrible little beasts off my plants.

As I engaged in the chore of attempting to save the last pepper plants, I noticed a sense of connection. I wondered what it would be like if I took the time to treat the people in my life the same as these plants. My mind started to think about family and friends and I made a mental note to check in with them later that day. Sadness also arose as I acknowledged that my lack of care and attention might mean that none of these plants would survive. I needed to slow down, to be more aware, to address problems as soon as they arose.

Important Lessons on Nurturing Myself and Others

As I plucked off the last of the worms, I thought back to how excited I was to plant the garden in the first place. In February, I had spent time looking through catalogs and carefully selecting organic heirloom seeds. When the brightly colored packets arrived I planted the seeds and watched them grow. I made plans for the raised garden beds and even agreed to let a friend of mine help build them. The pandemic hit in March, putting a dent in any progress, as my friend became consumed with his health related job. Then, a few weeks later, I fainted in a long grocery store line, cracking my ribs, which restricted my ability to lift anything heavy.

Still I had remained enthusiastic and ordered plastic beds online. I ordered organic potting soil as well, and managed to drag the bags to the beds and empty them. I watered the plants daily throughout the hot summer months and cheered at every new leaf or flower. What I hadn’t done, was spend time carefully checking my plants, making sure that no infestation was occurring. I knew that the nurturing piece was missing. Perhaps it was missing from the rest of my life as well.

Gardening Is Therapeutic Even When We Fail

Gardening is good for us physically and mentally, even when things don’t go right. When we plant a garden we spend more time outdoors, an experience that in itself can improve mental health. Gardening can also provide an opportunity for mindfulness, something that can benefit those who suffer from anxiety or depression. By quietly sitting with my garden, I was able to calm my mind and my breathing. But perhaps most importantly, gardening helps us move beyond perfectionism. And trying to make things perfect can lead to frustration, missed opportunities and strained relationships. Perfectionism can severely impact both our physical and mental health and is linked to anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts. Gardening helps us to let go of control and realize that nothing in life is perfect, and that in itself is therapeutic.

I sighed again as I watered the damaged plants and hoped for the best. ‘Maybe some of them will survive,’ I thought. I came back inside and became inspired by the amount of insight that had occurred in that short amount of time. ‘Gardening is therapeutic,’ I mused. I smiled as I began to plan a fall garden for the decimated space. I had learned some great lessons and was ready to try again. Both in life and in gardening.

Gardening is therapeutic photo of watering can
Photo by Christine John