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How a little dirt can keep you calm

Sam George-Allen

A year ago, I started gardening. I had just quit my job, and I couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that I had made a mistake—that I’d never be employed again, that I was foolish for trying to pursue my own dreams.

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It was September, which is early spring in Brisbane, Australia, and I had started taking my laptop onto the back porch. I’d sit at our weather-beaten table, trawling through job listings and feeling my gut clench. By the back porch were two trees—a mandarin and a camellia—which had been seriously neglected for years. They looked tired and run down; I realized that they looked how I felt. After a few days of glancing over my laptop every few minutes at their stunted, scraggly branches, I could no longer ignore them. I found some rusty shears, Googled “how to prune trees”, and set to work. It was hot, I didn’t really know what I was doing, and I got sunburnt, but once the dead branches were gone and I had returned to my shady porch, I felt supremely calm, calmer than I’d felt in weeks. Immediately I knew: I was a gardener.

It shouldn’t have surprised me how profound an effect the gardening had on me. The restorative effects of nature are no secret. It’s why even a metropolis like Tokyo is full of parks and gardens, and it’s why we bring home flowers to brighten a room. And gardening—the physical act of tending to a living and growing thing—has even deeper rewards. There is the obvious benefit of exercise, which is of the incidental kind (it doesn’t feel like you’re working out, even though you might be lifting heavy bags of potting mix and digging over entire garden beds). But a 2011 study published in the Journal of Health Psychology also found that thirty minutes of outdoor gardening both decreased participants’ cortisol levels and improved their mood. Several other studies have found the same thing: gardening really does make you calmer. Thinkers through the centuries have recognized this quality while tending their own gardens. Jane Austen was fond of finding inspiration in the peonies and columbines of her garden at Chawton Cottage. Naturalist and writer John Burroughs wrote about going to his garden to “have [his] senses put in tune once more.” Even Gandhi sang the praises of gardening as spiritual fulfillment: “To forget how to dig the earth and to tend the soil is to forget ourselves.”

Once you start gardening, you’ll learn quickly what grows and what fails, and to take those failures in stride; you’ll learn where the sun falls and at what time of day, and how to take advantage of that constant cycle; you’ll learn what insects are drawn to which plants, and the birds that follow them. You will start to slow down when you’re in the garden because the garden is necessarily slow. Nothing has taught me more patience than digging a garden bed in winter, sowing the seeds, and waiting for the crop. There was no better way for me to learn that good things take time and care than by watering in seedlings with half-strength seaweed fertilizer, carefully mulching them and checking their progress every day. And nothing made me more resilient than losing a crop, and realizing I could always try again next season. Connecting with the dirt—putting your bare hands in it and urging it to make something grow—is both humbling and empowering, and might even have scientifically measurable positive effects on your brain. Any work with plants counts: indoor pot plants, bonsai, high-maintenance orchids, greenhouses, community gardens, pots of herbs on the front step or window boxes full of geraniums—it all feels good. Start with a little punnet of parsley for the kitchen, and maybe in no time, you’ll be outside: sunburnt, sweaty, and calm.

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Connecting with the dirt—putting your bare hands in it and urging it to make something grow—is both humbling and empowering.

Sam George-Allen

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