A little philosophy on why we garden

By Lynette Walther | Feb 05, 2020
Photo by: Lynette L. Walther Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania are filled with formal examples of gardening that took its cues from Victorian England at a time when great gardens were a symbol of great wealth.

On the surface, the question of what drives mankind to create and nurture gardens is a simple one.

However, if the only reason was to plant, tend and then harvest food, one would have to wonder how humankind ever got past the hunter/gatherer stage. For certain, we garden to grow things for food, and we grow things to admire. We reap a harvest of food to sustain the body and views to nourish the soul. Gardens can do even more than that.

Throughout history, gardens defined civilizations, and those gardens were dramatically different verifying that nurturing of the soul aspect, which made gardens a fixture of many great societies.

Why, even biblical origins began in a garden! From that garden of Eden to hanging gardens, floating gardens, Victorian gardens, cottage gardens, topiary gardens, Victory! gardens  — you name it — gardens have always symbolized a sort of control, a mastery over nature.

Some garden project power and status by their size, scope and what they contain, but most all result in peaceful havens of order, beauty and plenty.

Gardens also demonstrate religious or philosophical messages. In the Old Testament, the four rivers of Eden are represented by four watercourses in Islamic paradise gardens.

In Christian cloister gardens we see the four paths. Zen gardens are often seen as an aid to meditation and indeed hint at hidden principles about the true meaning of existence.

For the Puritan mind, a garden represented a taming of the chaotic wilderness which was a living symbol of ungodliness.

A garden could become a control of nature from dark and mysterious forest, or even a “disease-infested” swamp emitting “ill humors.” Gardens throughout history created open spaces and domesticated extensions of living space.

The best of them contained enough mystery and imagination to capture interest as well.

Even particular plants carry symbolism. The mountain ash became a popular homesite tree, because it was reputed to repel bad spirits or misfortune.

Churchyards in Great Britain often contain yew trees. Poisonous, dark, and evergreen, they symbolize both death and immortality.

A Doctrine of Signatures was developed from the time of Dioscorides and Galen, stating that herbs, plants, flowers and leaves resembling various parts of the body can be used by herbalists to treat ailments of those body parts. While some may have ultimately been found to be true, many are just interesting oddities today.

In Victorian England, an entire “language” was attributed to flowers, and a nosegay of select blooms could convey a distinct message.

A garden is a microcosm of the outside world. Gardeners are acutely aware of the rhythms and cycles of nature: which flowers are in their prime, when to plant out the seedlings, when and how and how much it last rained.

Just as music is time made audible, the garden is, as Clive James said, “time made visible."

Anyone who has waited for tomatoes to ripen or counted days to when tulips poked out of the frozen ground has experienced one of the most beneficial aspects of gardening — anticipation.

It is faith that drives countless gardeners to commit spring-flowering bulbs to the soil as Mother Nature begins to draw in all her subjects in preparation for the deep freeze.

There is much to be said for having hope, something to work for, and something to look forward to. It is what drives the gardener to keep going when Mother Nature turns fickle and sends an early freeze to halt tomato growth or sends a squad of squirrels to raid a stash of carefully-planted tulip bulbs.

Discouraged, but not defeated, counting every disaster as a learning experience, next time that gardener will watch the forecast more closely and have a frost blanket on hand.

Next time, that gardener will place those bulbs in a chicken wire mesh “basket,” and next time the gardener will start more seeds indoors early, and have them ready to hit the ground running when the time is right.

Patience and experience will come with time.

In addition to providing us with food and inspiration, gardens connect the gardener with another dimension: nature. When we welcome nature into our little domains, we expand that scope in marvelous, unexpected ways.

Statistics proved the benefits of living among green-growing things, even spending part of our day in green environments.

Gardening paves the way to increased muscle strength and cardiovascular fitness. Expect improved sleep and an improved diet, especially when you grow your own produce.

Less stress, anxiety, and depression and often a greater sense of community and belonging is also included in these gardening benefits. It doesn’t take a blue ribbon at the county fair to learn that your garden successes lead to better self-esteem.

There is more. Many of us are realizing that all the effort, all the work and sweat we put into our gardens is like money in the bank when we consider the value of our harvests.

But there is even more. We get exercise and fresh air in the process. Count up all the reasons why we garden, and it makes sense that gardening is the one activity that we can practice throughout our life.

Lynette L. Walther is the recipient of the GardenComm Gold Medal for writing, and is a four-time recipient of the GardenComm Silver Medal of Achievement and the National Garden Bureau’s Exemplary Journalism Award. Her gardens are in Camden.

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