Gardening as Radical Self-Care
Climate Justice | April 6, 2021 | Posted by Jill McLaughlin
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This month’s contributor is Briana Barner, a newbie plant mama raising her family in Texas. She is currently finishing her Ph.D in Media Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. In her free time, Briana enjoys writing, listening to podcasts and crafting. She recommends checking out the organization Black Girls With Gardens.
Gardening as Radical Self-Care
I do not have a green thumb. Let’s make that clear, first and foremost.
This is what I would tell myself as I strolled past plants, gardening, and anything related to it. I had no desire to take care of a plant in any form; I was struggling enough to take care of myself and my family. But one day, during a particularly low point where my mental health declined, I remembered one of my best friends casually suggesting that a plant might help. At the time, I dismissed it, but then it came back into my mind. Maybe it would help. At that point, I was willing to try anything; I just wanted to feel better.
So I mustered up the courage to go buy my first plant. I had no idea what I was doing, or even where to look. But I remembered that my grocery store sells plants, so I figured that’d be a good place to start. My friend recommended a peace lily plant. It was just my luck that as soon as I entered the floral section, big beautiful peace lily plants greeted me. One beckoned to me, so I took it home.
During that first year of being a plant mama, I still believed I didn’t have a green thumb. I bought a few more plants but had no idea how to take care of them – I thought I just needed to water them periodically and that was it. A family member gently reminded me that these are living beings that need more than just water. They told me that it was important to pay attention to their patterns – how much light they need, what the best environment is, and more. I had to care for them.
I still didn’t connect gardening to self-care until the pandemic began. At that point I still had some of the plants from my earlier, non-green-thumb days. At the lowest points of the beginning of quarantine, it was hard to imagine how gardening could help at all. Honestly, gardening seemed like another chore and stressed me out. And, I reminded myself, I don’t have a green thumb. But if caring for plants could bring me out of a low point once, maybe it could happen again.
I made the decision to take advantage of the pause that quarantine demanded from us. We clearly had much more time on our hands. This was an opportunity to radically shift and try something different. My pre-pandemic life involved no hobbies, and I wanted to change that. I was so focused on being busy and filling my time with activity after activity. Quarantine forced me to slow down and think about other things that I could do, since much of my “self-care” activities were now unavailable to me.
I could never have imagined the joy that I would get from gardening. I’m a city girl through and through. Growing up, we didn’t have a backyard, and I was not used to having my hands in the ground.
There was so much to learn, but again – I had more than enough time on my hands. I learned about the benefits of compost for soil (and was surprised to learn that there are different kinds of soil!). I learned the importance of fertilizer. I learned why it was necessary to have a fence around the garden – the bunnies that came to my yard each night also enjoyed the fruits of my hard labor.
The first time I visited a nursery was a life-changing experience. I felt at home. I enjoyed looking at the varieties of plants, touching the leaves, looking at the soil. It is a feeling that is hard to describe. I purchased seeds and rolled up my sleeves. My husband helped me to build a raised garden bed. I take great pride now in what I can do with my hands. Getting my fingernails dirty became an accomplishment.
I’ve learned so many lessons from gardening. It takes great intention to plan for a garden. I had to figure out the best position to place the garden bed, noting what points of my yard received the most sunlight, and at which times of day. Taking care of a garden forced me to get outside and enjoy nature–an activity that I didn’t take advantage of before COVID.
The wee hours of the morning became my quiet, sacred time as I tended to my garden and listened to the birds chirping. For those moments, the world stopped and I didn’t have to think about the chaos that was happening outside my yard.
The best part about gardening is seeing the plants grow. Gardening has brought out childlike excitement for me. I eagerly rush to see my plants, and take delight in watching the fruits and vegetables grow. The food tastes different, more fresh. It is an indescribable feeling to know that the food that I provide for my family was grown by me. Before I became interested in gardening, I hadn’t put much thought into where our food came from. But as more and more food grew in the garden, even my family got excited to see what was for dinner that night, and how much of it came from the garden.
The end of the gardening season was bittersweet. It had taken up so much of my time and it really did get me through the roughest points of quarantine. I panicked a little, worrying about what would occupy my time. But one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned from gardening is to trust the process and to trust the seasons. The gardening season might have been over, but the lessons remained. Winter became a time to reflect on what worked and what needed improvement, and now in spring, it’s time to prepare and do lots of labor to prepare for the summer harvest. I am more than excited for round two of gardening and getting my hands in as much soil as I possibly can. In tending to my garden, I am tending to myself.