The Secrets of Mindful Gardening

Touring the San Francisco Botanical Garden with master landscaper and contemplative gardener Peter Good reveals what curiosity and attention can teach us about gardens—and gardeners.

I’ve spent some happy moments in my own small garden, down on my knees, gently pressing the earth over a handful of seeds or nurturing a young plum tree to bear fruit. I’ve known for a long time that whatever effort I give to my garden, the gifts that I get back are nothing short of miraculous: food for body and soul.

But today, as I tour the 55-acre San Francisco Botanical Garden with master landscaper Peter Good, I discover the gifts of gardening on a completely different scale.

 Soft-spoken and handsomely weathered, Good regards this urban oasis in the midst of Golden Gate Park as his spiritual home. “This garden is my touchstone,” says Good, who has spent decades working here. And no wonder. The botanical garden houses 8,500 kinds of plants from around the world, and everywhere I look, there is something spectacular to see: rich purple blooms on the rhododendrons, pastel azaleas, and golden South African lilies.

On Garden Time

Good and I start by strolling along slowly, stopping to finger a branch, sniff a flower, or gaze high up into a tree. On my own, I’d probably walk briskly through this garden, seeing the obvious sights, but today I deliberately slow down to match his leisurely pace. Reducing the speed, it seems, is part of Good’s secret to gardening; slowing down allows the mysteries to unfurl. 

On my own, I’d probably walk briskly through this garden, seeing the obvious sights, but today I deliberately slow down to match his leisurely pace.

I watch as he pauses, kneels down, and lifts a broad green leaf on the edge of the garden path to reveal a tiny hidden bloom, cradling the delicate blossom in his gnarled hands. It’s rose-colored and exquisite, hanging upside down from a slender stem. I follow his gaze and peer at what I would have missed—not just the blossom itself, but the beads of moisture on the sheltering leaves, bright and reflective as little balls of mercury, and the shiny trail on another leaf, left by a snail. 

 “Asian mayapple,” Good says, turning the small flower over so I can see its full beauty, the waxy petals, the delicate yellow stamens. “This plant is from China,” he adds and softly ticks off the names of the other plants we will soon see. 

“Plants are our travel agents,” he says with a smile. “They take us places. And everything has a story and a companionship with the whole ecosystem: the soil, the rocks, the trees.” To walk through the garden with Good is to discover the garden’s undercurrents, the smallest and most elusive details. 

As we visit one plant after another, Good talks about each like an old friend. I watch as he lovingly runs his fingers along the branch of a bush, kneels down to look underneath a plant, scratches at the soil to check the moisture content. I follow his pointed finger to glimpse a flitting bright-blue butterfly. It soars, dips, circles, settles on a leaf for a moment in the sun, then spreads its wings and drifts away. “There goes a pipe-vine swallowtail,” Good says. “And over there is the pipe-vine plant, where it lays its eggs.” 

Good knows this garden so well that he can see what is not yet there. He points to a tall stalk with buds along its length. “This,” he says, “will soon have flowers that will emerge as an unworldly crystal blue, as if we were in Avatar!”   

Paying close attention is Good’s way of caring for this garden, for hearing its messages. It’s how he spots the signs of a tree in distress or makes sure there are enough native plants to keep the bees and butterflies happy. When he pauses by a dry creek bed, he leans down to point out some tiny green shoots lying partly underneath the rocks—unnoticed by an average visitor, of course. “It’s quiet here now,” he says, “but that will change.” The little shoots will soon push their way out. In fact, Good adds, shoots like these could push their way through asphalt if they needed to!

Hide and Seek

Watching and listening, I begin to sense the hidden power of this garden, the invisible, fierce force of nature that is at every moment nudging each plant along its own course. It reminds me of the line in a Dylan Thomas poem: “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower.” It’s spring and those green fuses are all sizzling. The garden is full of raw energy, more going on beneath the surfacethan I’d ever imagined

The huge 200-year-old Monterey Cypress by the park’s entrance is impressive enough above ground, but beneath the soil the tree’s roots are an equally powerful presence. Underneath our footsteps, Good tells me, those tree roots are communicating with each other. 

The garden is full of raw energy, more going on beneath the surfacethan I’d ever imagined

 “Plants are also tactile,” Good says, stopping beside a massive tree with thick rusty-brown tangled skeins of stiff plant material hanging down in bunches. I’d never seen—or fingered —anything quite like it, and on my own I would have passed it by. “Aerial roots,” explains Good. “It’s a New Zealand Christmas tree, and these bunches of roots reach down to grab the earth and help stabilize the tree when it grows on precipitous slopes.” 

The more I slow down and linger, the more I see: a ladybug climbing up a stalk, a beetle slowly making its way into the grass. 

 “When you slow down like this, the real garden is uncovered,” writes Wendy Johnson, who started the gardens at Green Gulch Farm Zen Center in Muir Beach, California. “And so is the real gardener,” she adds.  “You unfold together. This takes time and a willingness to sit still past the moment when you get bored, or past the moment when you think of at least 30 worthy garden tasks that you need to accomplish immediately. Instead, give yourself all the time in the world, and don’t move.” 

I think of the biologist David Haskell, who spent a year studying just one circle of earth, a meter in diameter, and found enough going on there to write a whole book about it, The Forest Unseen. I’m beginning to get the barest hint of how he found enough material.

My own garden has held surprises, too. Once, I moved a rock to find a moist little salamander hiding underneath. As the warmth of the sun reached it, the small brown creature moved one delicate long-toed foot, then the other, completely vulnerable to any careless movement of the rock that had provided shelter. I gingerly put the rock back in place, delighted to have shared such a rare private moment.

Good and I walk along a path into the Botanical Garden’s primitive plants area, where shady clumps of horsetail ferns grow, along with other age-old plants, the kind that formed the fossil matter of our modern fuels. He points to a Wollemi pine, a tree species dating back millions of years and until recently thought to be extinct. But a specimen was found in a remote canyon in Australia, he tells me, and seeds and cuttings have since been carefully distributed to various areas of the world, to reestablish the species. He sees this as a hopeful sign. 

 “Even in dark times in history,” Good says, “nature is still there, still bountiful, still providing comfort.” 

I take in his words, savoring their meaning and the calm that has enveloped me while in this lush landscape. After a long pause, we walk slowly back into sunlight and sit on a bench. “Look up,” says Good. A drooping profusion of exquisite white blossoms is gently swaying overhead. “It’s a Chinese fringe tree, and we are here at the perfect moment.” 

After saying goodbye, I leave the garden moving far more slowly than my usual pace, having seen far more than I usually see. I look forward to getting home to my own small garden, to see what secrets I can discover in my own patch of earth.

Seven Ways to Appreciate the Natural World

  1. Slow your steps. Take your pace down to Peter Good speed. Think saunter or strolling for pleasure, not getting to a destination in a hurry. Slow down and enjoy.
  2. Savor through your senses. Tune in using your whole body: the warm air on your face, the sound of birds, the fragrances of flowers and earthy smell of soil, the texture of leaves. Feel each sensation.
  3. Think small. A photographer for National Geographic once spent time lying on his stomach in the desert, photographing flowers he called “pinhead flowers,” blooms that were the size of a pencil dot. When he enlarged the photographs, they were stunning. 
  4. Notice tiny details. Author Jane Anne Staw wrote Small after she had an epiphany about concentrating too much on the big picture and missing the small one. One day she noticed a single dried leaf on the sidewalk, and focused all her attention on that leaf. “Suddenly I felt awareness course through me…my whole body hummed with pleasure….”
  5. Change your point of view. Poet Mary Oliver said that she could walk the same path every day and always see something new. Vary your gaze: Look up, look down, sweep your eyes from left to right. And use more than just your vision. Listen to the crunch of your feet as you walk.
  6. Go lightly. When you are out in nature, nothing is required but your presence. Put away your need to do anything and completely mute your cell phone. Unlike electronics, plants don’t demand us to click on anything; they signal subtly, so look for their clues.
  7. Stay awhile. Biologist David  Haskell spent a year observing one square meter of earth in order to write The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature. Pick your spot, get comfortable, and resist the urge to move on. The garden will reward you and so will the rest of life.

The Health Benefits of Gardening

Gardening gets us moving, fills our lungs with fresh air, is naturally meditative, and can be deeply nourishing, both literally and figuratively. But research also shows that in getting some dirt—with its bacteria and other microscopic denizens—under our fingernails, we may also boost our gut health.

The gut has earned the nickname “second brain” among some experts. Much of that is thanks to the 300 to 500 different types of bacteria, along with other friendly microorganisms, that make up our intestinal microbiome. From breaking down dietary fiber to making vitamins K and B7, the microbiome does a lot of heavy lifting in maintaining our well-being. A 2013 study at Oregon State University also found that gut microbes communicate back and forth with the vast number of immune cells that live in our gut, helping to decide when the immune system needs to spring into action—say, in response to invading bacteria—and when it isn’t needed. 

What, then, does gardening have to do with our gut? Soil naturally contains probiotic microorganisms that support gut health. For example, Mycobacterium vaccae, a bacterium found in soil, appears to aid the release of the chemical serotonin, which may alleviate anxiety and depression. “Gardeners inhale these bacteria while digging in the soil,” says microbiologist Dorothy Matthews from Russell Sage College in Troy, NY, as well as on “their vegetables, or when soil enters a cut in their skin.”

However, as modern science starts to discover the benefits of these probiotic microorganisms, our mainly indoor, sanitary lifestyles threaten their very existence and the delicate role they play in our bodies. Natalia Shulzhenko, PhD, who reported on the 2013 study, says our gut flora face “increasing disruption,” due to “modern lifestyle, diet, overuse of antibiotics, and other issues. With that disruption, the conversation is breaking down.” 

All the more reason to go outside; get our hands dirty; breathe deeply; enjoy wholesome, natural foods; and care for the earth we all depend on.

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About the author

Karin Evans

Karin Evans is a frequent Mindful contributor, a journalist, and the author of several books, including the bestseller The Lost Daughters of China: Adopted Girls, Their Journey to America, and the Search for a Missing Past, Their Journey to America, and the Search for a Missing Past. She is currently the executive editor at OneSky for all children, and the 2017 Jonathan Rowe Fellow at the Mesa Refuge in Northern California.