Gardening offers benefits that go far beyond the obvious. A horticulturist explains.
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Most people separate work and play into separate boxes — 8-to-5 in the cubicle, weekday evenings watching sitcoms or carting the kids to ballet rehearsal, and weekends of golf or waterskiing.
Not so the gardener. Digging holes and pulling weeds could hardly be called recreation. But gardening doesn't fit so neatly into the work box either. Although at day's end you're left with sore muscles and more weeds to pull, you also find that your soul has been nourished and your spirit rejuvenated.
Gardening is the most popular hobby, but the term seems pitifully inadequate. What term could be applied to a pursuit that takes so much of you and yet gives so much back? Gardening is an avocation, a passion, a calling. It's getting out of the car after a long day and a longer commute, feet sore, brain frazzled, body drained, and finding you can't wait to drag hose, tend tomatoes and transplant zinnias.
In the hierarchy of all things important, gardening is very near the top.
It's important because you pass along the awe to the youngsters in your life. Together you plant radish and carrot seeds and you get as excited as they do when the seedlings poke out of the ground — not to mention that kids who grow radishes and carrots are more likely to eat them.
Gardening, they say, keeps you young, although I haven't seen any scientific data on the subject. Staying young is important to me and I'm guessing gardening is less painful than some of the Beverly Hills methods (though perhaps nearly as costly). I've known a fair number of elder gardeners and noticed in them a certain nimbleness of step, a bit less stiffness in knee and hip. The elder gardener may pull fewer weeds and find their shrubbery has swallowed large chunks of yard, but they walk through the garden with a grace that only a lifetime among bees and butterflies can give.
Gardening is important for the economy since only a gardener would spend $75 on a single hosta or daylily, and to do so with no regrets. Only a gardener would spend winter evenings reading plant descriptions in garden catalogs, believing every word.
It’s important because it teaches you humility when the $75 hosta is devoured by voles (a small vegetarian rodent with expensive tastes), or the prized rose bush decimated by Japanese beetles. It also teaches the joy of nurturing, the delightful responsibility of caring for a seedling that depends on you for light, water, life.
It gives you an excuse to wear silly hats that keep the sun off your neck and hang out with other gardeners who will covet your silly hats.
It's important because when your gardening days are finally done, some young couple will come along and rediscover your long-neglected garden. As they are cutting back the overgrown shrubbery they will encounter some fragrant treasure that you sowed so many years ago. That treasure will spark in them something that they will pass along to their own children.
In a world where conflict and strife seem to surround us, gardeners create a space where peace and beauty reign. In a time of rampant selfishness, gardeners set the example of selflessness. For it's impossible to garden only for yourself. The colors and textures you splash upon the ground are soaked up by all the birds, butterflies and passersby in your neighborhood.
But mostly, it's important to be a good steward of a small patch of earth and to know that you are one among millions who are helping to heal a wounded planet, one garden at a time.
(Paul McKenzie is a horticulture extension agent in Durham, N.C., and manages the Durham County Master Gardener Volunteer Program.)