I’ve been thinking a lot lately about things that help. Not just in those initial raw, grief-soaked days and weeks after a loss, but in the longer term. I took part in Bide & Bloom’s #thebigselfcareshare the other week, and it’s been on my mind a lot since then. One thing I didn’t mention in that piece is my garden. It’s bulb planting season and an afternoon spent clearing away the faded summer blooms, raking up the first falls of burnished leaves, and plotting where I want spring daffodils, tulips and alliums is as restorative as anything I can think of.
I know, I know… woman fails to grow and nurture a baby so she grows and nurtures plants instead, it’s verging on cliché. Particularly as before all this I could barely keep a supermarket orchid alive and was rarely at home during the daylight hours to even see my garden let alone do anything to it.
That gardens can be healing is not exactly a new idea. They’re often used in stories as a refuge for the damaged, the childless, the unhappy. Think of sour, sallow Mary Lennox in The Secret Garden, transformed into a blooming, lovely girl by fresh air and being forced to look beyond the end of her own nose. Or closer to the bone perhaps, Serena in the Handmaid’s Tale (TV version) barren and furiously pruning the roses in her pristine greenhouse, the one small corner of her universe she can control.
Blossoming, blooming, creating new life… all the symbolism is there.
And of course, in the Hollywood-movie-montage of my life, I would slowly transform from uptight career girl with lacquered manicure, weeding the beds in the wrong shoes, to relaxed, earth-under-her-fingernails Good Life goddess, clutching home-grown flowers and then – final frame – a positive pregnancy test or perhaps a scan picture.
But this is not how real life works. And this post isn’t intended as some Goopish fertility plan. Unlike Polly Garter, only flowers grow in my garden. No babies yet. (And to be honest, sometimes even the flowers struggle.)
When we first moved into our house the garden was very much an after-thought. We didn’t really do anything to it for a year, unless you count leaving a fence panel that had blown down in a gale on the lawn all winter, killing a perfect square of grass underneath.
But slowly it drew me in. In the weeks after my first miscarriage, crocuses and snowdrops I didn’t know had been lurking beneath the cold soil appeared – flashes of colour just when I needed them most. Gentle, encouraging reminders that life goes on, and a nudge as to what this patch of earth of mine could offer up if I only tended it a little.
After the third, we channelled our anger and frustration into taking down a particularly rampaging rambling rose – a monster called Kiftsgate, not really meant for small gardens, that had ensnared the shed, throwing out spiked tentacles the width of the garden faster than I could hack them back. It took two weekends to chop it all down and two of us to pull its twisted roots fully out of the ground. Finally, we could walk down our garden path without jumpers being snagged; arms scratched and torn. A small but significant triumph we both desperately needed in a moment heavy with failure.
Now, three years on from the month we moved in, I feel like the garden is finally taking shape. It’s far from perfect, a bit scruffy around the edges, but I’ve filled it with my favourite flowers – peonies, which flowered for the first time this May, and hydrangeas – as well as lots of unfussy, bright, cheerful things like cosmos and poppies, and fragrant things like honeysuckle, lavender, thyme and mint. This year I added dahlias too, which remind me of my grandpa (no longer around to bellow ‘mind my dahlias!’ at us).
I think a garden’s power is about more than just making something pretty, though. It goes beyond the sentimental value of certain plants, deeper than its physical proof of jobs accomplished and weeds defeated.
There’s a theory that a lot of ill health we see now – the rise of auto-immune disease, inflammatory conditions, allergies etc – is down to ‘missing microbes’. The idea is that as we spend less and less time outside, the less we are exposed to the broad variety of microbes that we evolved to co-exist with – and their absence from our modern sanitised lives has a profound effect on how our immune systems and all sorts of other things in our bodies develop, meaning they misfire.
Now – and bear with me here – I think there’s a parallel argument for what gardening does for mental health. Gardening gives your mind exposure to things you don’t realise are missing, crowded out by the realities of modern life, especially if you live and/or work in a city, engage in social media, shop fast, eat fast, everything fast. But they’re things that you need to survive, to thrive, to stop your mind attacking itself. Things that generations before ours would have taken as bloody obvious.
Growing a garden – or a window box, or a few pots on a balcony – defies all those modern pandemics: perfectionism, comparison, instant gratification. It teaches you to be patient, that no plant looks great all year round, that things change – constantly, and to accept that sometimes things go wrong for no real reason – the conditions can be all but perfect and some bulbs will flower and others still won’t. But there’s always next year. It’s no one’s fault (except maybe the slugs).
It’s the ultimate antidote to anxiety and heartache. It’s meditative, distracting, all-consuming – you can’t watch the telly out of the corner of your eye or hold your phone in one hand (unless you’re checking the RHS website, again). And unlike, say, baking, painting or other crafty things that are supposedly good for ‘occupying yourself’, the results aren’t instant, so you can’t nitpick at them or be disappointed by a deflated sponge. You just have to stick stuff in the ground and see what happens in a few weeks or months.
That, I think, for me is why it helps. Why it heals. And also there’s something about hope.
I don’t think I can explain it any better than this quote which I read recently. It was attributed to Audrey Hepburn, though as with any ‘inspo’ quote you find on the internet it’s just as likely to be anyone from Voltaire or Paris Hilton. But let’s let Audrey have this one, as she also had several miscarriages in her lifetime, and grew a beautiful garden at her house in Switzerland La Paisible. This is what she said: ‘To plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow’.