published: June 2019

Garden Guru: Don’t stress! Enjoy your garden

by Matie Belle Lakish

What feelings do you have when you go into your garden? Do you see all the things that need to be done, and suddenly feel your stress level rise? Or do you notice the small successes in your garden plan, and see the beauty in a plant you hadn’t remembered?

Of course, there are obligations. If you want vegetables in July and August, you have to go through all the proper motions to plant the seeds and plants in May and June. If you want flowering bushes in May that fruit in August, you have to prepare the soil and plant, sometimes years before. And water is crucial in the desert. No doubt, gardening is a long-term commitment.

That doesn’t mean, however, that it always has to be a chore. It also doesn’t mean that your hard work will always be rewarded with success.

I find gardening to be a lot like interaction with humans. Always surprising, always interactive, and nearly always rewarding. But as with humans, the unexpected is always around the corner. Plants are subject to a plethora of forces of nature that we humans only think of in the broadest of terms. Freezing, or not. Wet or dry or in-between. Sunny or cloudy. Snow, hail, or rain. But for a plant, minute variations in altitude, temperature, humidity, as well as the vast variability of soil nutrients and organisms can all make a life or death difference, or the ability to reproduce, or not.

And what about predator and prey? Decades ago, The Secret Life of Plants by Tompkins and Bird introduced humans to the concept of plant consciousness. Many scientists challenged the author’s assumptions that a lie detector could pick up on the emotions of plants, probably with good reason. However, newer research does show that plants have complex systems of communication with each other and with beneficial insects, animals and other plants. They can also use chemical signals, much like animals use hormones, to communicate with each other and with beneficial insects and predatory insects and animals. Recent research indicates that a fruit tree may sacrifice certain parts of its buds and branches to aphids or other pests in order to protect the rest of the tree. It does this, as far as humans know, with the use of chemical attractants. Similarly, flowers may use scent and color to attract the pollinators the plant needs to reproduce.

This is no surprise to most readers, but if we contemplate the implications of these mysteries, it can lead to an assumption that the garden we are interacting with is a friendly space full of sentient creatures with a willingness to interact, not only with the plant world, but with us as well.

There are so many mysteries to contemplate. Why does my dog like to eat crabgrass much more than other varieties? How does the crabgrass know how to follow the water source so precisely? What are the ants looking for as they cruise the scent trails through the plants? Why do different kinds of ants seek out different territories and habitats? Why do some kinds of wild bees prefer peach blossoms to plum, and vice versa?

One of my favorite things to do when I am stressed out by the demands of my human world is to go into my garden and sit. Sometimes I will just admire the flowers that are blooming and the chard plants for their form and color. Sometimes I contemplate the varieties of bees and flies on plants. I remember a time last year when I spent about half an hour watching half a dozen types of bees and fancy flies on marjoram and sedums. It was like moving to another world.

In case you are wondering what I am talking about, and why, my goal is to help you relax about your gardening. Life is short. Enjoy it. Create spaces in your garden where you can just sit: a comfortable chair overlooking the bed of strawberries and rhubarb; a shady spot to watch the butterflies; an inconspicuous, but comfortable bench in view of the penstemons that draw the hummingbirds.

If you have pets, make space for them too. When I was first working with my garden, I had it all filled with useful or desirable plants. My poor dog had no place to relax in the shade. For two years I tried planting shade-loving flowers in the places I had designated as suitable for them. For two years, my dog dug them up. Finally, I noticed that she consistently preferred certain spots, and I now leave those for her. We have reached a compromise.

Who in your environment would like a compromise? Children? Cat? Dog? Deer? Bear? Can you relieve gardening stress by being observant, patient, appreciative, and relaxed about the outcome? There’s always next year. Happy gardening.