Five Things that Make Gardening So Therapeutic
A few decades ago I came home thoroughly exhausted from my day at work. I was bone tired, and signaled my goal to take a rare 20 minute nap before dinner while my husband kept an eye on the kids. Then, the most remarkable thing happened. As I found myself outside looking at a few weeds in a flower-bed next to the driveway, I thought I’d pull a few out and then take that nap. What happened? Thirty minutes later the bed was weeded and every trace of tiredness was gone. Vanished. It was like mother earth had injected me with some kind of energy tonic as I dug in the dirt.
This is a departure. This is my first lifestyle article, written for the purpose of celebrating what has been and still is a lifeline for many in these days of the Covid pandemic. Learning about gardening and enjoying the journey of developing a beautiful, well-kept garden is healing and deeply, almost mystically restorative.
1. Weeds can Steal your Joy AND are Therapeutic to Vanquish
There’s nothing like declaring victory over pernicious weeds, especially without using harmful chemicals. Our first home was a former rental bought on a land contract. Remember those in the 80s? We soon found many portions of the yard full of, what, spaghetti? Nay, we stumbled upon one of the most pernicious weeds ever, bindweed, a.k.a. Convolvulus arvensis. Suffice it to say that we moved before we had any hope of beating back this deep rooted cousin of the morning glory that had infested lawn, garden beds, everything! At our new home, on an acre, we found new weed foes: poison ivy, quackgrass, creeping charlie, horsetail and thistle. I’ll save the poison ivy and horsetail for another day, and concentrate on these three from least, to worst in my opinion:
- Creeping Charlie, (Glechoma hederacea), also commonly known as ground ivy, is a member of the mint family and spreads almost as aggressively by runners on top of the soil. It’s pretty and does smell nice. A less aggressive version, Variegata, is sold in nurseries as a cascading filler for planters. However, in the garden it can quickly infiltrate garden beds competing with your favorite flowers for nutrients.
- Quackgrass, (Elymus repens), is an ashy green-gray coarse grass that spreads aggressively in lawns and gardens via thuggish underground rhizomes and runners. It delights in and can take almost permanent residence in poor soils. Richer soils make its white runners easier to spot. In poor soil, which it prefers, I’ve had to use a mini-pick axe to chop it out. (Tools pictured below.)
- Canada Thistle, Cirsium arvense, is an aggressive, perennial weed that spreads via a robust, sneaky underground network of roots and runners. It infests farm fields, pastures, rangeland, roadsides and gardens nationwide. Infestations often start on disturbed ground. Therein lies the wisdom, one year’s seeds, 10 years of weeds. Cut off those seed heads when you see them no matter what.
These weeds are tough. But you can be tougher. The satisfaction that comes from beating back these garden thugs is long lasting. A well tended garden free of these common invaders creates quite a beautiful feeling. For how to, read on.
2. Persistence Pays Off Handsomely
The weeds listed above are not one and done, especially when it comes to quackgrass and other so called “uncontrollables.” The secret is to be more persistent and vigilant than the weeds. THE best time to attack these beasties are in early spring, when the insolent sprouts show themselves and DARE you to battle. My favorite fighting tools: a cobra hooked-end weeder, mini-chopping tools and a sturdy, narrow shovel used to dig, dig, dig. (Rest-in-glory, dear father-in-law who shared many garden wisdom gems with me, and passed on his excellent shovel.) It’s best to weed after recent rain when the ground is soft.
In some cases you may need to dig out an entire garden bed. This may be the only way to clean out a large infestation of perennial (regrows every year) weeds. You will need to pot up or heel in plants and shrubs that were living in that weed tortured bed and nurture them separately for awhile. (Heel in = to transplant in a mound of dirt somewhere else.) Then, admiring perhaps a day or two of what seems like cleansed soil, WAIT. This allows time for new shoots, like bits of quackgrass rhizomes resprouting, to now reveal their hiding places. You may need a month or two of time to clear all the new weed second string invaders as they show themselves. Then replant. The results from this effort are long lasting.
Plan on a few years going after the sneakiest sprout, the most devilish sideways taproot. In the end, if you keep at it, you. will. win! (Hence item #1.)
Pictured: Sideways roots on dandelions. Tools used to de-weed heavy infestations.
3. Mulch is a Gardener’s Best Friend
We garden organically. The garden shown here had many thistles that were mulched over extensively in 2014. MULCH is one of the best, organic ways to fight weeds, and did end up putting an end to thistles that had infested that garden spot years earlier. Save brown paper sacks and the non-colored parts of newsprint to put under the mulch. Printers now use soy-based inks, safe for gardens. Add on top 2-3 inches of mulch.
If the goal is simply to eliminate weeds, 2-3 inches of anything organic that blocks light will work, preferably 3 inches. To nourish the soil over time, something that composts more quickly, like leaf mold, makes sense. Mulch will not kill all weeds, but it will surely slow them down. The contrast of mulch with a errant dandelion or clump of quackgrass attempting to reestablish itself will be like arrow in neon lights => chop me out! And once it’s gone, how fine that is!
The mulch bonus: You can plant flowers and veggies in mulch, as you continue suppressing weeds. Sow some calendulas, four o-clocks or marigolds in a veggie garden fenced border. Seeing flowers dance happily above mulched soil, soaking up sunlight is a very fine thing.
There are many things you can use for a healthy mulch. Leaf mold, shredded leaves, straw, bagged cedar or cypress mulch, even corn cobs, or wood chips. Wood products are especially good for suppressing weeds.
Check out ChipDrop for free mulch and similar arborist-based online services and smart phone apps.
Pictured: Lasagna-style flower beds in progress. Less lawn, more flowers including many bee-friendly plants.
Mulch makes for happier plants, keeps in moisture (greatly reduces watering needs), builds up the soil, and is earthworm friendly. Organic farmers rely upon organic mulches due to their availability, low cost and natural ingredients.
4. Enjoy the Garden Moments
Take time to notice what you revel in when you enjoy your first garden plants. I remember being all of twelve years old planting a handful of petunias in a spot by the back door. Within a few weeks I was surprised to at how that little bit of effort caught my eye a few weeks later. I was unexpectedly rewarded by a lush, carpet-like velvety purple flush of blooms, as if to say, AH, we have ROOM to grow. Thank you! Cherish how the gardener in you grows no matter when you start growing things or how well you plan out your first gardens.
Whether it’s a pretty pot of petunias or violas near a shady reading spot, or a new cottage garden bed of bee balm and zinnias nourishing bees and butterflies, celebrate those moments of delight. Take a mindful pause to enjoy what you have crafted with your plant companions. Savor them. It is the journey and the destination, both. Make sure there’s a place you can sit and simply take it in.
Making choices in the garden is an art. Your garden design sensibilities will develop especially well if you take the time to notice what you enjoy the most throughout the garden seasons.
5. Enjoy How Your Plant Choices Evolve
There will be times our plants fail to thrive. It’s an integral part of learning to be humble as a gardener, novice or expert. The revered host, Monty Don, of long running Gardeners World TV show fame in the garden-centric UK says, “Even the greatest master – the true expert – is only scratching the surface of the incredible complexity and subtlety in their garden.” So, take setbacks in stride. Experience, reading & gardening friends will help you learn how having the right plant, in the right place, blooming and perhaps producing delicious fruit. That reward, simply and deliciously, is one of life’s enduring joys.
“Even the greatest master – the true expert – is only scratching the surface of the incredible complexity and subtlety in their garden.”Monty Don
Gardening Know How: Best Vegetable Mulch: Learn About Mulch For Vegetable Plants
Down to Earth, Monty Don, (DK, 2019)
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