Mindfulness in the Garden

Gardening without earbuds lets you hear yourself and your body, says Nancy Darling.

Photo: Mac99/iStockphoto.com

When my spring assault on the garden began,  I tore up weeds and spent an hour untwining the tightly wound stems of old bean plants and peas from their strings in an attempt to let the netting last just one more season.  I lugged kid-sized bags of vermiculite, compost, and peat moss from bin to bed.  I hauled out the hay fork and mucked out and flipped last year’s leaves and this winter’s kitchen scraps, hoping to find rich soil at the bottom of the pile.  I did.  I loaded it in the wheelbarrow and slogged across the yard.

Just like always, I was struck with the contrast between the idyllic gardening experiences of my fantasies with the real life gardening of my backyard.  Somehow, the cold wind, muddy knees, hot sun, and chronically runny nose never figure into those mid-winter daydreams.  I don’t remember ever fantasizing about the wet puddles that always gather this time of year, the sloshy mud that squashes into my clogs, or the tomato poles that just won’t stand up straight.  All those baby centipedes stampeding when I stick the trowel into the dirt just never came to mind when I looked through those catalogs featuring perfectly ordered gardens last February.

It was midway through pulling up last year’s mouse-gnawed kohlrabi that I remembered I had my new cell phone in the back pocket of my jeans.  Hours’ worth of music.  Weeks’ worth of audiobooks.  Streaming on-line radio.  I even had the earbuds in my jacket.

Yet somehow, despite what looked – and indeed, turned out to be – hours’ worth of tedious manual labor ahead of me, I didn’t put them on.

My senses were completely full.  My hands were stirring through cold, crunchy vermiculate, damp moss, and earth, re-energizing my one and only raised bed.  I could hear my breathing, drowning out everything except for the cardinals arguing over turf and that yellow bellied sapsucker that has been calling all week.  Just like when I’m swimming, I was totally aware of the air going in and out of my lungs and the sheer physicality of my labor.  Wiping my dripping nose, the caked mud under my fingernails left a dark streak I could feel and taste on my upper lip.  My thick socks were sodden, but warm against my feet.  Once more, I stumbled back and forth across the yard, balancing the damage done by walking through the wet lawn against the plants I’d tread on if I took the high ground through the garden against the fall potential of balancing on the rocks.

That entirely filled my attention.

I cleaned the two small fishponds.  I dredged out innumerable leaves, one dead koi, four live ones, almost a dozen frogs (some live, some dead, some hibernating – or maybe not).  I cursed every time a rock tumbled into the muck and I plunged up to the shoulder and hauled it out.  By mid-morning, the pumps were running, the fountains bubbling away, and the water clear and replenished.  By mid-afternoon, there were water bugs skittering over the surface.  Where had they been hidden?  Had I just missed them?

I moved on to the long rows of dead tomato plants, pulling old vines off of rhubarb finding it’s way to the sun.  Throughout my work, I found myself just gazing at the dirt, the water, the crocuses among the leaves, the mucky puddles.  The strawberries were already greenleaved.  I’d catch and shake myself after a minute or two.  Nothing anywhere on the surface of my mind, but completely occupied.

Like my muddy pond – you couldn’t see anything in it, but you knew there was something important happening just below the surface.

And I’d have lost it all if I’d turned on the music.

This article was originally published on Nancy Darling’s Psychology Today blog “Thinking About Kids.”