Trust the Process: Lessons from Gardening

In a climate like Chicago with such long, bitter winters the arrival of spring each year feels like a gift. It is almost as if I have forgotten that it will return! I find it endlessly satisfying to watch for the first signs of spring as the emerge in my garden.

In my one year blog anniversary post I wrote a bit about the role gardening plays in my life and how it relates to my view of therapy. Or maybe more accurately, how it relates to my views on all of our potential for healing and growth:

Gardens and nature in general are a big part of how I nurture and replenish myself, one piece of my work to prevent my own compassion fatigue. I have a whole other post full of things to say about how gardening reminds me of the lessons of therapy (growth takes time and is occurring even when we do not see it for example). I was struck by how I unwittingly (unconsciously?) chose an image for this blog as fitting as the lotus by a bit of something I heard the other today. A character on TV was repeating a quote:”the jewel is in the lotus”, described to mean “you already have within you what you need”. To me that says we, all of us, have within us the innate ability to heal, grow and blossom. You may need someone to help you find an environment that facilitates growth, but you definitely can grow and flourish.

So here comes a post full of some of that other stuff! As I spend time in my garden I think about nothing but what is in front of me, often. That is part of the appeal; it pulls me into the present moment. It reconnects me with something both simple and much bigger than myself. To me it is an experience of mindfulness. There is some research that backs this up: people who were gardening had brain waves that were very similar to people who meditate. But what I get from gardening goes beyond the joy and peace of doing it. It also provides me with lessons to apply to therapy.

When I think about it, In some ways gardening seems to me to be a metaphor for therapy or maybe more accurately human growth in general. Gardening reminds me to trust the process, that growth unfolds incrementally, over time. And that this is true even when it looks like nothing is happening.

No two gardens are exactly alike. That to me is a key aspect of their beauty.  Different plants have different requirements for growth. No matter how much I want them to, sun lovers are not going to thrive in my shady corner! How often do we do something similar to ourselves? Try to force ourselves to thrive in an environment/job/relationship that just is not capable of meeting our needs?

Perennial gardening in particular has taught me patience.  I’ve started some of my favorite perennials from dead-looking bare roots. They have taken years to show signs of growth in some cases. A few times I have been ready to give up, only to be rewarded by something like the spectacular blooms and fragrance of my lilacs.

Things happen in gardening that are beyond our control. I can stress out about this and try to exert control or I can let go and get a kick out of the unexpected. For example, squirrels love to dig up some of my bulbs and replace them with peanuts in the shell. When I encounter this these days I choose to find the humor in it, to view the squirrels as practical jokers rather than enemies. And when a bunch of my crocuses bloomed unexpectedly in the middle of a neighbor’s lawn, I felt like I was in on the joke. Gardening reminds me that I want to connect to and coexist with nature, not do battle against it. It reminds me it is okay sometime to just let go of my efforts at control and trust the process.

Kathleen Young, Psy.D.

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This entry was posted in Compassion Fatigue, Health, Mental Health, Psychologist, Relaxation, Self-care, Therapy, Trauma and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

22 Responses to Trust the Process: Lessons from Gardening

  1. shimon cohen says:

    I don’t care much for gardening but I get the same sense of peace walking through the Chicago Botanic Gardens or the one in Lincoln park. It’s been a while, got to go back to one of them soon.

  2. Sharon S says:

    I love the way you relate gardening to therapy! “growth takes time and is occurring even when we do not see it”.
    This is so true in therapy…growth is taking place constantly, even though it may not be verbally expressed It is ok to let go and trust the process…

    I love gardening myself and have been fascinated with all of the new flowers that are blooming and watching the buds grow on my rose bushes. Yes, this is relaxing and a great way to de-stress.

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  4. sara clement says:

    I completely agree. Gardening is so good for the heart and nervous system. I was so amazed when I read that soldiers with PTSD had a reduction in symptoms when they worked with plants. I’m partial to bonsai trees because they are so beautiful and can be worked with year round. Thanks for your insightful article. :o)

  5. Hiosilver says:

    My motto was “I will not let them win”. I am almost to the end of my system now. I have kept working all these years and have integrated hundreds of insiders. How wonderful to find this site and all this wonderful information.
    I chose this article about gardening the healing properties of working with plants and gardening because I found in the mid 90’s. Gardening is a way to fill up my soul and learn about life. I used to feed myself when I was in my gardens. I ate my breakfast from the vines or fruits of my labor and learned to develop relationships there. Each of the plants were my friends. I took in the good rays of the sun to nourish my body as I took the fruits to nourish and feed me. The relationships with the individual plants taught me over the years to look inside myself to see what my littles needed and to take care of their needs. It was the plants that taught me about the need for nourishment. Not just food, but caring voices and caring actions in the proper time gave me the best results. That is true for both my progress as a survivor and thriver and my gardens.
    Trust the process. What a fantastic title for our path to a better life.

  6. Tracie says:

    I have never thought about gardening in relation to therapy….this makes me want to start a garden to honor all the hard work we do as survivors.

  7. Being in nature and getting my hands in the dirt keeps me grounded. I love nature. Wish I was better with gardening.

  8. I think gardening really helps me learn to be flexible. This is a great life skill to have. Nice post! Thanks for letting us use it for the blog carnival. And happy anniversary!

  9. I’ve got such a huge property that I’m, finally after being here 7 years, I’m doing a landscape renovation from… which means, I redid the whole lawn, put in trees, added shrub beds, and on and on. I know exactly what you are saying… Yesterday I only planted 4 hydrangea. That was easy and “mindful”. But I am still having a hard time not doing so much in huge bursts… which kind of doesn’t make it so mindful and takes away the joy. Plus, here in New England, we have lots of ROCKS… and it can make digging the most infuriating task. I will practice mindfulness when I’m out there this memorial day weekend… !!! I’m looking for the day when I can just be in “maintenance” mode in my gardening…

    • Paul- That sounds fantastic! My first thought was to envy you all that space and such a major renovation, immediately followed by the thought of how easy it would be to get overwhelmed. Even in my tiny urban yard I remember that feeling of wanting to do it all, all at once. Given that I started with just a concrete slab back yard, there was a whole lot to do!

      You are indeed right, letting myself do a bit at a time made it far more “mindful”…and fun!

      Enjoy! 🙂

  10. Paul says:

    Thanks Kathleen. And this weekend I’m planting 39 shrubs (on top of all the others I’ve planted over the past couple years). After that, I hope to putz around for a while… 🙂

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