These are strange days, right? Perhaps that’s an understatement. The outbreak of a global pandemic was simply not on my radar. At all. I’m certainly not the only one. As far as I can tell each of us is filled with urgent stories of surreal experiences, and intense emotions as we grapple with this new, unprecedented reality. During this forced isolation I think we’re collectively yearning for connection. What could be better than taking time to connect with your garden?
The garden has been a place of solace to me ever since I was a child. I remember one Saturday afternoon being scolded by my dad. I was about six years old and had surely committed some egregious offense. My punishment: 2 hours in the “Weed Patch”. The Weed Patch was a small rectangle of about 10’x15′ where we planted our tomatoes and wild flowers every year. My dad used that chore as a punishment because it took me away from friends and tv. I’d trudge through the Patch with messy tears and snot smeared across my face and my little trowel in hand to begin my penance. But at some point during the chore, the tears would stop and I actually began enjoying myself.
Lately, I’ve been feeling overwhelmed with the weight of this crisis and the stories of human tragedy and fear. Do you feel it, too? I spend too much time scrolling through news articles and social media posts then feel shaken with an urge to fight or run.
A few days ago, I woke up to news that the State Department initiated a Level 4 travel advisory (seriously limiting International travel). It was quickly followed by the governor of California instituting a “stay-in-place” ordinance. I was apoplectic over the ramifications it could have for my return from Japan as well as for our family and friends struggling back in California. I needed to do something to settle myself down.
Feeling like the walls were closing in, I bolted outside. Here in Tokyo, I don’t have a much of garden to speak of. I merely have a narrow strip containing a row of anemic, dwarf azaleas with a constant understory of weeds. Out of mindless habit, I got down on my hands and knees and started pulling. The sun was shining. It was a little breezy. There were birds chirping—so many birds. And before long I began to feel like myself again. I could breath freer, my shoulders softened and I felt calmer. I could hardly believe how quickly the fear settled into a calm disquiet. Not perfect. But so. much. better.
It reminded me that in the most emotional and difficult times, to connect with your garden—whether by weeding it, planting something new in it, or simply walking through it—can help you find peace in the one place you can still go right now. Connecting with your garden allows you to effect change, not just in the garden but in your mind, body and spirit. And that is something we could all use a little bit of.
I encourage you, whether you are a career landscape professional, an avid enthusiast, or an admirer, take a few minutes out of your day to try one of these suggestions. Connect with your garden and the space around you and disconnect from the challenges on the horizon. I promise, you won’t regret it!
TAKE A MINDFUL WALK IN THE GARDEN
The first thing our maintenance team does when they arrive at our clients’ homes before getting to work is to walk around and take a look. It’s one of the most important steps in maintenance because it gives you a chance to take stock of what’s there and determine how you want to set your priorities.
- Start at the place closest to your door and walk slowly around all the planting areas, making a complete loop through the garden.
- Your pace should be slow. No faster than if you were trying to sneak up on your pet without waking them up.
- First look around with a soft focus. You’re trying to get a sense of the garden as a whole. Does anything stand out? Is there a plant that you love but can’t see because it’s blocked by something else? Are there any plants that are way bigger than you remember them being? Or way smaller?
- Next, look at each individual plant as you pass it. Is it blooming? Are any of the blooms looking old and spent? Are there any leaves or branches that are brown or dying? Do you see weeds? Are there plants growing on top of other plants? Do you see any pests?
- Make a mental note of what you see that stands out to you. Plan on returning to any spots that you really want to play with.
- No judgement allowed. If you haven’t spent much time in the garden lately, that’s fine! The goal here is connecting with your garden, making observations and maybe considering what you might want to do with it next time.
- Don’t forget to take some deep breaths as you go along. This is important. Just because it’s good for you!
- End at your starting point. You now have a mental map of your garden and hopefully have enjoyed a nice break.
Once a chore imposed on me as a child, now, it’s one of the most meditative, dare I say enjoyable, gardening tasks I perform. The more weeds the better!
It’s usually best to have a tool with you: hori hori, dandelion fork, hand hoe, weeding fork or if you have a bad back, a long handled tool: long handled diamond fork, Niwashi (Japanese weeding tool), etc. But hands also work.
- Find the spot with the most weeds. (Don’t be scared!)
- If the soil is hard, using your tool, dig down the side of the weed and leverage the weed out of the ground.
- If the soil is soft and relatively loose pinch the base of the weed with your fingers as low as possible, below the soil level if you can.
- Try to bring up the weed with it’s roots in tact. If you leave roots, it’s offspring will be back before dinnertime.
- Start slow and pay attention to what you’re doing to really try getting those roots. As you get the hang of it, move faster but continue to concentrate. If your mind starts to wander, gently bring your attention back to the task.
- Put the weeds in the compost heap (one that heats up, in order to kill any seeds)
- Continue until you are sufficiently relaxed and mentally present. Or until the weeds are gone.
- If you still feel anxious but all your weeds are gone, try weeding your neighbor’s front yard, for good measure. It helps with mindfulness and will help you make friends too (as long as you stay 6′ apart).
Note: This is a great activity to do with kids! It isn’t difficult, they get to see what a great job they’ve done and they feel a sense of accomplishment. My garden never had fewer weeds than when my son was a willing helper!
CLEAR THE PLANTS, CLEAr THE MIND
Certain plants, particularly strappy ones, continuously shed leaves to make room for fresh new ones. Clearing out those yellowing or brown leaves makes a huge difference in having a beautiful versus a so-so looking garden.
- Identify the plants in your garden that have regular die-off. Hemerocallis (Day Lilies), Agapanthus, Carex, Dietes (Fortnight lilies), Elymus Giant Rye Grass and most grasses are the most notorious ones.
- Using your hands, fluff up each of the plants (unless it has sharp edges, in which case use a tool), lift up the fresh green blades/leaves and see what’s underneath.
- Pull yellowing and brown leaves from the base and remove with your hands. If it freely comes loose, great.
- If the leaves do not come loose, use one of your knife-like tools. I like the hori hori or the turf cutter for those.
- Cut away from the very base of the plant watching out for fingers and drip lines.
- If you’re working on shrubs, always use your clippers to remove any branches. No tearing.
- If you have browning leaves on a shrub you can simply run your hands through the plants to shake loose anything that has died off. Don’t pluck!
- After you finish a plant or two, stand back. Appreciate that you have made a change here and things look better than they did when you started! Sometimes you can’t tell when you’re in the middle of it, so stepping back from time to time helps.
DEADHEADING FOR GOOD HEADSPACE
All blooming plants should be “deadheaded” regularly. All that means is take off the flowers when they look kind of old and sad. Roses, for example, will bloom much more prolifically if you continuously cut away the spent roses. It’s the same for salvias, lavenders, and all the others.
- Start with a good pair of clippers. Or a bad pair if that’s all you have. In fact, since you’re most likely stuck at home, if you don’t have clippers I won’t tell anyone if you use a pair of household scissors (just don’t forget to clean them afterwards otherwise your kid’s next art project might be ruined).
- You are looking for bloomers that look old and sad. By this I mean that their color has faded compared with newer blooms, they droop downward or have lost some or most of their petals.
- If you have a plant that has flower spikes (the bloom is at the end of a long stem), you should cut it down as close to the base as possible.
- If you’re working on a rose bush, find the rose you want to cut, look down the stem for the next cluster of leaves that faces outward of the plant and cut about 1/4 of an inch before that leaf. The new rose will grow from that junction.
- If you’re deadheading a flowering shrub such as a lavender just cut off the bloom down the stem as close to the first leaf cluster as possible.
- When deadheading an azalea or camellia, grab the old bloomer in your hand and gently try to snap or pull it off. If it doesn’t come off in your hand, it isn’t ready yet. (For azaleas, try putting a little cooking oil on your fingers before working with them—to avoid getting sticky from the sap which I find particularly annoying.)
- What ever the plant is that you’re deadheading be sure to talk lovingly to it as you look for each bloom you want to remove. Stay with me, ok? I don’t mean tell it your problems—although I sometimes find them to be excellent, non-judgmental listeners. What I mean is, speak your thoughts as you look for the blooms that need to be cut, “How are you doing? You look like you’re about done, is that right? Wow, you’ve lost all your petals already, I’m sorry I missed that.” It’s another way to be present in the moment with what you are doing. To suspend judgement of anything else that’s happening in your life or in the world, to let go of the past and not worry about the future. Just take that moment to think about that flower in front of you. Right now.
PLANNING AND PLANTING FOR THE FUTURE
There are few things more hopeful than planting seeds! These teeny tiny capsules of hope are one of the best ways to connect with your garden. Planting seeds is another great activity to share with kids.
- Sunflower seeds are my all time favorites for personal gratification. The seeds are big and easy to plant, they germinate in about as much time as it takes to put your tools away, and the end result of bright, boppy, funflowers is less than 2 months away.
- Plant a new group every two weeks to make your sunny days last longer.
- California poppies or other wildflowers make another great choice for planting. And talk about easy. Water the soil where you want them to go. Loosen the soil. Then sprinkle them, don’t bury them. Finally press them down to make firm contact with the soil, and water once more and keep things moist. You’ll see them germinate in about a week.
- Veggies are a must for some extremely gratifying gardening. Choose varieties that you actually like to eat. Don’t plant tomatoes if you don’t like tomatoes! Cucumbers, zucchini bell peppers and of course tomatoes are great choices and easy to grow. Start with 4” pots and plant them either in larger pots or directly in the ground. Cucumbers and zucchini can cascade over the edge of a pot, making a lovely green edible garden even with very little space.
- Give yourself a schedule for watering, weeding and feeding your veggies every week. They need you! And having a routine when things feel loosy-goosy at home is a mental health saver!
- Enjoy the satisfaction of seeing something you have put your energy and positivity into, grow and thrive despite whatever is happening around you.
There is simply no roadmap for what is happening in the world right now. We are charting new territory. It’s sometimes scary, and upsetting, and sometimes inspiring. One thing is for sure though, the effects of staying inside constantly can be toxic. Be sure to step out and breath deeply. The beauty that you find outdoors and to connect with your garden can offer you the gift of inspiration, rejuvenation and optimism. Be well!
Now, let’s go out and get our hands dirty!