When I was 8, my stepmother bought me a packet of seeds, bachelor’s buttons, and we planted them in the backyard. We hadn’t known each other long, and this is one of my first memories of us together. The flowers grew leggy and sparse, but I was thrilled. Our new relationship budded, too. When I was a teen and we moved to a new house with more natural space, my parents fostered a beehive on our two-acre lot. I learned to distinguish between honeybees and yellow jackets. As an adult, my garden is my happy place. I call it “dirt church,” and it turns out there’s some science to it. Gardening is good for our mental health, and it can bring us together.
Gardening fosters mindfulness by engaging the five senses, which helps us stay grounded in times of distress, explains Rameshwari Tumuluru, M.D., a psychiatrist and medical director of the Adolescent Acute Partial Hospitalization Program at University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s Western Psychiatric Hospital. Tumuluru created an on-site mindfulness, healing and wellness garden that helps her patients manage overwhelming emotions. “The whole concept of mindfulness is to be aware of the present moment without judgment,” she says. “And the garden teaches this skill of mindfulness naturally.”
Whether we’re putting hands in dirt or nurturing a seedling to a flower, fruit or vegetable, maintaining a garden engages the body, mind and senses, so it can act as a self-soothing technique. Lynne Linkowski, a certified art therapist and a mental health specialist for Bellevue Independent Schools in Bellevue, Ky., says, “Gardening also lends a metaphor that is so helpful in the therapeutic relationship because it allows the individual to safely explore their own thoughts or feelings, but at a distance from their reality.” With gardening, kids can dig in the dirt and simultaneously allow themselves to “dig into what’s really going on in their life,” Linkowski says.
Many therapists use play therapy to engage children in an activity so they’re not focused on the act of talking. “These activities give us the language to express ourselves and maybe a little more freedom than if a person was expected to be introspective or verbally process only in traditional therapy sessions,” says Linkowski.
Gardening offers the same type of experience. Tumuluru says, “They’re focused on the act of doing, and it brings them out of their shell.”
If you already have a garden, invite your child to help you tend to it and add to it. Give them some creative control as enticement. Do you have a pet? Growing catnip or installing a simple dog-friendly fountain might just be the garden addition that gets your kid interested. Meet them where their interests lie to create the connection. Start the conversation.
The garden is a way to do something positive together during difficult times. Feed the bees and the butterflies while growing food for your family or flowers for your porch. I plant bachelor’s buttons with my son now. They will always remind me of being 8 years old with my stepmom. Hands in dirt, nurturing seeds to blossoms.
Tumuluru says it best: “From the seeds of mindfulness, the feelings of health and hopefulness will grow.”
Bonnie Jean Feldkamp is a wife, mother and award-winning columnist. She is the media director of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists. Readers may email her at Bonnie@WriterBonnie.com.