The COVID-19 pandemic has created many changes to how we live our life among uncertainties, altered daily routines, financial pressures, and social isolation. We are all worried about getting sick with uncertainties about how long the pandemic will last, as we focus on our daily needs and future outlooks. I know I am experiencing daily stress, anxiety, sadness and loneliness. My primary connection to normalcy is caring for my gardens and enjoying the beauty and solace that the natural world provides — a healing appreciation of the magic of nature.

Gardening keeps us connected to other living things and can act as a gentle reminder that we are not the center of the universe. For many the peacefulness associated with gardening comes not from its social aspect but from an individual’s own perception and appreciation. It allows us to escape from social interactions and into a realm of calm, beauty, and peace. Flowers are restful to look at, and they have no emotions or conflict. During stressful times it is important to focus on the “here“ to calm an anxious mind. The next time you are in a garden, pause for a few moments to allow yourself to be aware of your senses: Listen, touch, smell, see. Just a short time experiencing the fullness of nature can be very restorative.

Tending to gardens is equally restorative. The rhythmic nature of many tasks in the caring for gardens — weeding, trimming, seeding, and planting — allows thoughts to ebb and flow along with our movements. As time passes competing thoughts in one’s head clear and settle, allowing more positive and restorative ideas and thoughts to take shape. The act of gardening encourages exercise and spending time outdoors: what is good for the body is also good for the mind. When we are active and exercise, the levels of cortisol (a hormone associated with stress) is lowered, and levels of serotonins and dopamine (hormones that make us feel good) increase. Although tending one’s garden can be tiring, it can also get rid of excess energy — allowing you to sleep better and ultimately feel renewed.

Rituals can help us work through difficult emotions, including grief. Gardening is a form of ritual involving both the giving of life and acknowledgement of its end. It is also symbolic of regeneration. It is no surprise that we create gardens of remembrance and mark the scattered ashes and graves of our loved ones with roses, shrubs, and trees in acknowledgment that from dust we all come and to dust we return.

Through gardening, we have access to not only the therapeutic power of unleashing anger and aggression, but also gardening provides an opportunity to nurture. Clearing a plot, cutting, chopping, and shearing a hedge, yanking and pulling weeds is rewarding because it is closely linked to renewal and growth. Gardening helps one gain a sense of control. Instead of the fruitless attempts at controlling one’s life or other people, one is more likely to succeed in controlling the garden beds and borders.

A grand garden, such as the Hanging Gardens of Babylon or the Gardens of Versailles, symbolize control and mastery over nature, a haven of peace and plenty, of order, and beauty, by which to project the status, power and temperament of its owner. A garden can also have a religious or philosophical message of dimension. For example, four water courses in Islamic paradise gardens, and four paths in Christian cloister gardens represent the Old Testament’s four rivers of Eden. The Zen garden, by hinting at hidden principles serves as an aid to meditation about the true meaning of existence.

In essence, the garden represents a taming of nature, from the dark forest or disease-infested swamp to an extension of our living space: open and structured to still our minds, but remaining enough mystery to sustain our interest and even capture our imagination! Community garden projects are also on the rise. According to the National Survey 2018, more American households (77%) are gardening than ever before.

Gardening is more and more recognized, and even prescribed, for its health benefits. Some of these include: Increased muscle strength and cardiovascular fitness; improved sleep and diet (if one grows their own produce); reduced stress, anxiety, and depression; a greater sense of community and belonging; and better self-esteem. One does not even have to get their hands dirty: Some of these benefits accrue simply by visiting a garden.

If gardening makes us feel better, it also makes us into better people. It is a moral education, a school of life, instilling virtues such as pragmatism, patience, perseverance, reliability, and humility, which then transfer out into other spheres of one’s life.

In his treatise on agriculture (c. 160 BCE), Cato is very clear that farmers make the bravest and strongest soldiers, and they are the “most highly respected, most stable and least hated.”

Just as in WWII, Americans stepped up to support and fight in the war effort. The Victory Garden Program was initiated shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, when our nation entered into WWII. While maintaining an adequate domestic food supply during wartime was a primary goal for the program, another goal was to: “Maintain and improve the morale and spiritual well-being of the individual, family, and Nation.” The beautification of the home and the community by gardening provides healthful physical exercise, recreation, and definite release from war stress and strain,” according to one of the many pamphlets produced by the USDA to help families and communities succeed with their gardens. In 1944, gardens produced around 40% of the U.S. vegetable supply.

Today, as our nation binds together to fight a common national conflict, engaging in creating or visiting gardens may be the answer to calm our spirits while experiencing something beautiful.

Additional information/publications on horticulture can be found at the University of Georgia’s Extension Website, http://extension.uga.edu/. In addition, the local UGA Douglas County Extension Office is available to assist: uge2097@ugs.edu or 770-9207224. For suggestions for future articles, you may also email douglasaska mastergardener@gmail.com.