• Zen and the art of gardening



    THERE’S a different kind of high that you get from gardening. It’s a profound feeling that many gardeners experience: oneness with the earth, a deep gratitude for life, a happiness and peace that permeates the soul.

    I didn’t think about this when I first began to do gardening, merely prompted as I did by my love for Mediterranean food. Having fresh herbs is essential in perfecting these dishes. I started with a small herb garden. Confidence boosted, and from there I moved into vegetables, flowers, ornamental plants, and fruit-bearing trees.

    It was while I was tilling the soil to prepare my vegetable plantings—soaking in the earth’s surprisingly intoxicating fragrance—that I felt a deep joy in doing this simple, primal act. Removing my gloves, I decided to forgo my trowel and instead crumbled the dark rich soil with my hands and dug out a nice hollow for my seedling to settle in. The birds were trilling, I was perfectly happy. I took the young plant that I grew from seed and handed it over to Gaia for her nurturing.

    Gardening is a meditative act. It can bring you to a quiet zone, a welcome state of mind amid all of life’s difficulties and stresses. Life lessons are learned with Nature as the ultimate teacher.

    Patience was my first learning, when I was still a rookie gardener filled with pride but without much knowledge.

    My first time to plant seeds I dug a hole a foot, probably more, deep and watered it down like a monsoon spell. Two months later I couldn’t see a single sprout, I never did.

    Gardening is a meditative act that engages all of your senses

    Gardening is a meditative act that engages all of your senses

    I learned only later that depending on the seed, it only takes days or maybe a few weeks for germination—but only if you just lightly cover it with soil, instead of burying it as if in a grave.

    In a garden, the cycle of life is at full play. You put a plant in the ground, it grows or it gets disease, it thrives to bear fruit or flowers, then it withers and dies. But it does not end there, dead plants are a prime component of a compost heap (together with your kitchen scraps) and all these organic matter will soon decompose to form a nutrient-filled natural fertilizer. Such is plant life, so it is with humans. Personal questions on mortality and spirituality are easily answered here in the garden.There’s something in gardening that induces a state of relaxed thinking, sometimes euphoria, and always an easy contentment.

    Some studies have even concluded empirically that the sight of greenery eases the mind, especially if it has been stuck in seeing only concrete structures. One explanation is that the structure of minds and senses are still those a hundred thousand years ago, when men and women lived in forests and jungles, and green was the color of refuge and home.

    Gardening engages all of your senses. You pick up a rose, attracted by its bright color, and get pricked in your haste. The rose smells wonderful, and you love the feel of the soft petals on your cheeks. It was all worth it, wasn’t it, all the watering and fertilizing (for roses are such heavy feeders) for this is a thing of beauty indeed.

    I love trawling through my tomato patch. Their leaves have a distinctive smell that’s hard to describe, a bit sharp, tangy, earthy, sweet at turns. Nature designed them that way to put off certain insects; it also tells you, even without you seeing those fat red globes, that the tomatoes are ripe for the picking.

    Science has now chimed in to support what gardeners have known all along, that this activity has a powerful beneficial effect not only on the mind but also on the body. A study by researchers at the University of Bristol in London found that a naturally occurring soil bacteria Mycobacterium vaccae could cause the body to activate its immune cells and to release serotonins.

    The chemical serotonin (a neurotransmitter) regulates the functions of the brain including mood, appetite, sleep and memory. The lack of it is what leads to depression and other mood disorders. Physiological changes in the body happen when you inhale these good soil bacteria while cultivating the soil. Some researchers suggest than even a simple walk in the garden or eating of a lettuce is enough to ingest the helpful M. vaccae.

    The same researchers suggest that modern society has become too hygienic for its own good and that this is probably why there is an increase in the incidence of asthma, allergies, and mental illness.

    “These studies help us understand how the body communicates with the brain and why a healthy immune system is important for maintaining mental health,” Christopher Lowry, a neuroscientist in the University of Bristol said in Discover magazine. “They also leave us wondering if we shouldn’t all be spending more time playing in the dirt.”

    Ah, to play with the earth! Now I understand why children have such a passion for playing in the earth, be it in grass-filled lawns or in the sandy beach (or in simple sandboxes).

    It’s as much fun as picking fruit in the garden. In fact, just seeing the ripe fruit can trigger the release of another neurotransmitter, the pleasure compound known as dopamine.

    The happy feelings generated by harvest time probably evolved from our years as a hunter-gatherer, wrote Robyn Francis in Permaculture Australia. Quoting research theory, she said that every time food was found or gathered by our ancestors, dopamine flowed through our heads, generating feelings of joy and euphoria.

    The modern transference of this need for a dopamine high can be seen in the behavior of those with compulsive shopping disorders and other consumerist addictions. Gardeners are immune to these retail therapy urges, affirms Francis, because they already get a near constant supply of dopamine.

    I can’t say I’ve given up on shopping entirely though it has been seriously moderated by my new favorite activity. Besides, I prefer the high from gardening—it lasts so much longer.


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