The Garden Path – finding one’s way in life through gardening

Gardening is more than a hobby or interest – it’s a way of life, which not only affects our physical health but also our emotional, psychological and spiritual well-being.

Gardening through the seasons of each year and reflecting on what gardening can teach us about life itself, can help us live a fulfilled life and find joy and peace of mind.   Day after day we learn not only what works in the garden but also what works best in our own lives too.  

Just as we come to realize that we need to develop qualities like patience, optimism, trust, discipline and attention if we’re to become successful gardeners, so too we come to see that those very qualities are the ones that we need in our lives if we’re to be happy.

In working with the cycles of nature, which we learn as gardeners to do, we also become more aware of that vitally important relationship between ourselves and the natural world.  We’re far more likely to develop an ecological consciousness – of more importance today than ever before in history when species are disappearing at an ever accelerating rate.

For gardeners and garden writers - a diary, letters, or books have been a way of sharing experiences and opinions and offering advice.  Whilst they may provide forthright views on plants and design, they often offer lyrical descriptions of plants or gardens which fire our imaginations and delight us.   For novelists and playwrights - gardens may be a backdrop against which a plot unfolds; for poets - plants, the seasons, or gardens can be used to convey emotion or capture poignantly some aspect of the subject or make a profound statement; for philosophers, mystics and spiritual teachers of different traditions, east or west - plants and gardens can provide useful metaphors.

Writers have always written about gardens, whether a description of their own garden, or a garden they have seen, or even a mythical garden or an imaginary one.  Their writing lives on long after the garden that inspired them has been reclaimed by nature, for gardens rarely continue as they were, unless there is an effort to conserve them. And their evocations inspire us, and make us want to create our own gardens, even if that may be just a small collection of pots or a box on a window-sill.

We’re fortunate that descriptions of gardens live on in literature, as they do too in buildings and pottery, in art and in music.  Going back to the earliest dawn of civilization, plants appear in decorative motifs on buildings and pottery and for personal ornamentation, long before records of garden layouts.  But the wealth of literary output concerning plants and gardens is amazing, and reflects the great love of gardens and gardening through the ages.

But why is it that gardens have been such an inspiration to so many?  Why too do we garden enthusiasts feel inspired at a certain stage of our lives to create our own garden?  And why is it that gardens and the activity of gardening have the power to make us happy and heal our sadness?

Gardening seems to fulfil a human need to be in touch with nature.  All cultures seem to have been rooted in plants and gardens with tremendous reverence for nature, and the earliest rituals were linked with the earth and its fertility and the need for sun and rain. The idea of a sanctuary, a place of beauty, where we can be at peace appears in all cultures.  Creating and tending a garden seems to fulfil a longing for paradise on earth, as a place to which to retreat from the bustle of the world and lose oneself in contemplation.  It’s perhaps no coincidence that the Persian word for a garden is ‘pairidaeza’ from which the English word ‘paradise’ derives.

And to quote an old aphorism, ‘Paradise is nearer to you than the thongs of your sandals’.  All it requires is being out in the fresh air, working with the soil and plants (even if only on a balcony in pots or in a pocket-handkerchief of a garden by the back door) sowing seed, watching life emerge, weeding, pruning, harvesting, clearing.  When we’re dedicated and put in the effort, we lose ourselves in the activity, we seem to transcend time itself and taste eternity.  We experience joy and our souls are nourished.  And as we watch the seasons turn one into another we appreciate the regenerative cycle of nature, and feel connected to something greater than ourselves.

Perhaps in the 21st century we need more than ever something to help us counter the effects of technological progress, consumerism and the cult of celebrity.  We live in an era when we’ve lost all confidence in both politics and business and their lack of real values.  Many people are unfulfilled in their lives even though they have everything they thought they wanted, whilst the rest of the world is caught up in poverty or war. We have somehow become divorced from the natural world and seem on a headlong course to destroy the planet one way or another.  It’s no wonder the ‘good life’ of Aristotle increasingly beckons.  Not that gardening is a panacea for the problems of the world, but maybe in creating our own little bit of paradise we can as individuals make a difference.  If we stay sane in an increasingly insane world, then maybe we can have an effect on others.  And if we garden organically we may also be helping the environment at least a little.

For as long as I can remember I’ve had a passion for gardens.  From early childhood, when I was eager to help my grandparents in their cottage garden, to having my very own mini-garden aged seven, where I grew both flowers and vegetables (with a great deal of help from my father); to my early twenties, when, gardenless, I endeavoured to grow tomatoes, aubergines and peppers, as well as flowers, in an assortment of pots and boxes on the window-sill of a flat in the inner city.  Later on, when I had my first tiny garden and greenhouse, such was my enthusiasm I grew far more in my greenhouse than I could possibly plant out in the garden.

Since then I’ve had three gardens, where I’ve tried to make something of what I found – dreaming, toiling, sighing and laughing at the sheer joy of watching a garden unfold.  In the process I have learned about both gardening and myself. 

Gardening has for me been both a delight in good times and a consolation in times of difficulty.  It has also taught me a great deal.  Not only have I become familiar with plants and trees and their likes and dislikes, learned about the nature of soil and mastered the art of compost-making, raised seedlings, planted bulbs and grown fruit and vegetables  - all things which any gardener learns over time, but more importantly I’ve learned some important life lessons from my garden  - above all how to be happy living in harmony with the cycles of nature. 

My book The Joy of Gardening is designed for garden-lovers as an anthology to inspire.  Its aim is to raise the spirits merely by browsing its pages, and I hope it will leave you happier than when you first opened it.  It can be turned to at any time of year amidst the gardener’s never-ending round of tasks. 

The quotations are organized by season and juxtaposed to allow the reader to reflect on the ideas.  The seasonal introductions emphasize the process of birth, bloom, decay and regeneration in nature. 

May you enjoy endless hours of happiness both in and out of the garden!

To accompany you on the Garden Path, you can order direct The Joy of Gardening from this website.