dirt therapy

Dirt Therapy and Spiritual Growth

Summer is peaking and every year I’m still fascinated by how green and full the landscape gets, as if seeing it for the first time. Bushes crowd roadsides, trees cast thick shadows, grasses and shrubs spill into walkways, the colors and blooms evolve weekly – what a show!

In my own yard, I have much to be amazed by as well. I have a small lot and a modest vegetable garden, but it’s something I look forward to tending every growing season. I call it Dirt Therapy. I didn’t make up this name, I first heard it from my horticulturist friend when we worked together for a real estate developer. I miss trading stories with him during the work week about the season’s latest blooms. His enthusiasm and knowledge of plants was a gift to everyone around him. I admired his attitude and spirit. With a smile and joke, he just rolled with whatever life sent.

My gardening started before I even had a say in the matter. My grandfather had a massive backyard vegetable garden and when we visited, I simultaneously loved and loathed it. Loved because it was irresistible, a bountiful feast for my eyes and tummy. Loathed because it was hot, dirty, and buggy, and I was expected to help.

When I finally bought a home of my own as an adult, I knew two things – I would get my own dog and my own backyard garden. My garden has changed over the years and in a way has become my whole yard with the addition of fruit trees, berries, perennial herbs and asparagus. There is of course the lawn too. There were years during my drinking when all of this became overgrown and very unmanageable. My home looked like it was cursed in a fairy tale.

Gardening gets me outside and into the fresh air. Mindfulness of the breath is a primary practice in my Buddhist recovery program, so I really notice the air. Even the briefest visit to my garden stabilizes my mood, like a reset button. A turn about the yard has become a meditation of sorts, clearing my mind, slowing down and noticing what’s present: new green tomatoes emerging, an abundance of string beans ready to pick, beetles eating on the leaves of my cucumbers, impermanence of water, dog poop on the path.

Taking care of my garden and yard is good fitness too. (Endorphins are always welcome!) Beyond the cardio of mowing a lawn, there’s watering trees and plants with heavy pails of water, squatting and crouching to pick weeds or plant seedlings. Bending and stretching around crowded plants so not to damage them. I use my hands, arms and shoulders to pull, dig, reach. This can be as gentle or aggressive as I want. The point is I keep moving.

Dirt Therapy is a hobby that returns on it’s investment too. I get FOOD! Seriously, nothing tastes better than when I pluck it out of my own yard and bring it to my kitchen. Twenty bucks worth of seeds gives me hundreds of dollars of fresh produce. It’s also a social hobby if I wish. Fellow gardeners love sharing more than wisdom, they want to trade seeds and crops. I have teamed up with my neighbors “I’ll grow the tomatoes, you do the zucchini and squash” and then we swap bounty. Gardening is also a perfectly good anti-social activity if that’s the mood I’m in. A garden is a great place to be alone. Connection or solitude – my choice.

Dirt Therapy can take as much time as I want, or as little. This is the practice of balance. Do I want a few potted plants or a 20 x 20 plot? Do I want to weed for five minutes or an hour? What does it need today? What do I need today?

Gardening is a activity that blends well with other interests too. It dovetails nicely with cooking, art, crafting, music, home aesthetics, science, and more. To me, having a garden is essential in my parenting game. For my children and for the child still in me, gardening cultivates curiosity, creativity, responsibility, patience, and knowledge of nature and seasons. My garden needs me too, just like a pet. It’s nice to feel needed.

Gardening allows me to appreciate the season, paying attention to the weather, the temperatures, the patterns. I try to model my life around this natural flow. I want to roll with it, like my horticulturist friend.

Knowing my yard intimately, I’ve discovered a rotation of small critters. Some years we have lots of toads, some years we have lots of spiders. This year, I see lots of skinks and very few spiders and toads. My imagination takes off with this little ecosystem: who’s eating who this year? Who will thrive? Who’s living in hiding and plotting a ruthless revenge? The animals and insects are all so attractive and resilient. Yes, even the bugs that I loathed as a kid capture my admiration. I enjoy incredible satisfaction when I notice the crickets and locusts of summer stop singing. The sudden silence, likely determined by a change in temperature, is an sign that autumn is arriving.

To me, working in a garden gives me a sense of where I am in space and time. It connects me to the earth, the seasons, and the land where I live. When I take care of my plants, I think about the people who lived in this area for centuries before me, and wonder what plants they grew. I have come to understand and appreciate that what is a luxury activity for me, meant life or death survival for them. What will grow here in the future with climate change, technology, pollution and population? Will my children and generations after me garden the way I do?

Gardening also connects me to past versions of me: the little girl helping her grandpa, the young adult looking forward to a garden of her own, the alcoholic who neglected her own home and yard for years while it grew over with weeds, the recovering alcoholic putting her life back in order, the mother of two who shares her gardening hobby with her own little ones. Dirt Therapy gives me time to think, appreciate, imagine and process. I listen to podcasts and audiobooks too, but often I’m quietly thinking, remembering, wondering.

The spiritual benefits of gardening are unlimited. It’s more than the boring ole AA adage “pick one weed and another one pops up!” I’m constantly churning profound metaphors for my own life in the garden. Gardening is a practice in mastery and you can take this in whatever direction your heart desires.

A Zen friend surprised me with a handmade flower press a few years ago. With it he included a quote: “The entire expanse of the cosmos can be seen in a single blossom.” I think of this when I look inside a fresh flower. It might be true! Take a peek.

My garden feels like home, be that at times messy, weedy, sweaty, spider-y one. Mostly though, its growing, bountiful and beautiful. In Dirt Therapy, its not just the tomatoes that are flourishing, it’s me who’s blooming too.