"My house is in the hills above Trujillo. A very simple place. Pinkstones that warm in the sun. A kitchen garden that smells of herbs in the day, jasmine in the evening. Through the gate is a giant poplar. Figs, apples, pears. The soil, Marcus-black. Black like my wife’s hair. Grapes on the south slopes, olives on the north." This is how General Maximus of the Gladiator, played by Russle Crowe, explains his house to his frail emperor.
My first brush with the wonderful world of gardening happened in the early 1990s when I saw my mother sprinkling tiny seeds in our kitchen garden. Tender spinach, brown spuds, red tomatoes, lady’s finger, pristine radish, king brinjal, all danced to my mother’s tune. The harvest was aplenty too. The produce from the garden was adequate to cook three meals a day. In fact, she would share the excess with neighbours.
The joy of cooking a meal with freshly grown herbs was boundless. Ask any gardener, happiness for them is synonymous with gardening. It puts them into "present moment", breaking the mundane and mindless continuum of everyday existence. It is a journey of attaining that sublime state that distances one from the cacophony of the deadly world. Gardening, thus, proves right what the Buddha said in the first verse of the Dhammapada, "Mindfulness is the way to the immortal, unmindfulness the way to death."
Nurturing a garden is purely a labour of love. It’s a feeling that a mother experiences while fostering the most cherished part of her being — her child. Much like the supreme joy of watching children grow inch by inch, in all abundance, spreading the bountiful colours of their innocence all over.
"The act of spotting tiny buds from seeds you had sown is like holding a newborn in your arms for the very first time. The excitement and joy is limitless. Almost surreal," says homemaker Krishna Chauhan, an amateur gardener since childhood. Mere saplings that sprout into full-fledged trees endow inner joy, besides blowing the siren of peace, she adds.
Just as in life, hits and misses are common in a garden too. Hardships like insects, disease, inadequate water, excess light, poor nutrition and soil quality often spoil periods of labour in one’s garden. More so, the resulting negativity, like weeds, slows down growth and sucks fun out of life. Unwanted. Undesired! Nevertheless, life is not meant to be deterred by failures, as often it is followed by success.
Gardening, therefore, is an apt metaphor for patience. An activity that demands tremendous toil and endurance; most importantly, an implicit faith that there’ll be tomorrow. It encapsulates life in miniature as well as in abundance. Gertrude Jekyll summed the love for gardening thus: "A garden is a grand teacher. It teaches patience and careful watchfulness; it teaches industry and thrift; above all it teaches entire trust."
You reap what you sow, goes the idiom. For Bengaluru-born gardener Kavita Reddy, "It is nothing less than magic which transforms tiny teeny seeds into fruits of life. The eternal lesson of man’s journey into this world is illustrated right before you in your garden. What seeds you sow in the garden of your mind determine the quality of life you shall have. Weeds or flowers are your choice." It is a meditation on time that life has to flow. Nothing is static. Everything in this world has to grow, bear fruits and shed leaves and die, a fact she swears by.
Like any creative act, inspiration comes to a gardener as music to Mozart. Tender touch with coarse yet moist soil flushes off worries of the world. Mind transcends and cohabits in unison with the marvels of nature studded on a serene island. Sunshine, the water droplet resting on a leaf, that sudden gush of air, paint a thrilling picture under the azure sky. Thereby, indulgence with Mother Nature stimulates a creative canopy of ideas. Solutions to problems which gave one a tough spot for months are found to be glaring right at one’s face.
A spiritual quest
Communion with nature tunes a gardener to a higher self, towards stillness and silence, absorbing the rhythms of nature. Being "in the moment" also breaks the mindless chatter — that incomplete and incessant conversation of the past with the future. Moreover, the divine dialogue with nature heals mental agony and accumulated pain, much like a friend’s reassuring words that ‘all is well’.
It is readily believed that to bury seeds is to bury worry. After all, good thoughts, a gentle prayer, soft words and some water work wonders on a plant. Maintaining one’s garden with meditation is said to spurt crop yields too. Therefore, to say that gardening is an act of higher calling would not be wrong.
Spiritual group Brahma Kumaris carried out research in Gujarat where one thousand farmers combined farming with meditation and produced remarkable results in crop production. Farmers were able to achieve improved seed quality, crop yields, low cost and reduced pressure on environment, the research claimed. The farmers’ emotional well-being and community resilience were other improved factors, the study concluded.
Greener areas for better living
Researchers from Harvard University have found that living amid rich vegetation improves physical and mental health. The study followed nearly 1, 00,000 people. Of the group, 8,604 members died. After taking into account external factors such as age, race, socioeconomic status and smoking habits, the researchers concluded that people who lived in greener areas had a 12% lower mortality rate than those with the least vegetation surrounding their homes.
"Policies to increase vegetation may provide opportunities for physical activity, reduce harmful exposure, increase social engagement, and improve mental health," the Harvard team suggested.
Truly, the benefits of gardening are aplenty. Exposure to sunlight results in adequate intake of Vitamin D; soil-rich microorganisms are good for the skin too. A simple glance at one’s garden uplifts the mood and removes stress, which in turn lowers blood pressure. Moving about in a garden is a workout in itself.
Tryst with the green world is elixir for even peculiar health disorders. It is a therapy with the potential to heal even grave illness. A renowned Garden Writer of an international newspaper, claims to have healed himself from mental illness by following this pursuit religiously.
First step, the hardest
Taking the first step is always challenging. But once it is taken, the road ahead is fruitful. Manikandan Pattabiraman, a 35-year-old gardener from Bengaluru, is one example. His interest in plants began when he was in Class 3 in Chennai. With 100-odd pots of growing veggies and ornamental plants, he started gardening as a hobby, and today has a huge estate. He vouches for gardening despite shrinking spaces as it is eco-friendly.
"It is absolutely possible to start a garden in an apartment. A small balcony that gets four to six hours of sunlight is good enough to start a mini-garden. People with their own terrace can try a wider variety. Moreover, when you grow your own, you decide when to harvest and this prevents you from eating under-ripe vegetables and reduces wastage too."
In an article titled ‘Eight Ways to Beat Stress’, on www.discovery.com, Bobbie Lieberman argues, ‘‘Activities that absorb you completely will slow your brain waves and put you into that ‘zone’ in which internal chatter is stilled. It could be bird-watching, cooking, biking, riding, painting, writing, sewing, gardening, photography, and the like.’’ Gardening, hence, puts one into the serene zone of calmness.
For Delhi-based Meena Srivastava, gardening is not just a hobby. It has been a life-changing activity. "It must be taken up seriously in today’s tiring times. Children must be encouraged to plant trees and also take care of them. Society should be encouraged to take up gardening too." Terrace gardens, kitchen gardens and greenhouses are the changing facets of gardening today that are very interesting. It must be pursued as a recreational activity on a daily basis, she strongly recommends.
Tom Smart, gardening writer for The Guardian, says, "The high-point in the year comes when one begins to harvest early peas. It’s always exciting to pull the first one from the vine, pop open the pod, tip my head back, and with a flick of my thumb pour a handful of sweetness into my mouth."
"The dazzling sight of cherry tomatoes in spring or the sound of grasses dancing in an autumn breeze. Could life be more peaceful and beautiful? With a modicum of effort and a decent trowel, we may all be able to find our little piece of Zen," Smart writes in a blog post.
For my mother, the secret ingredient that nurtures the garden is ‘love’. She often says that when she plants trees the success rate of those saplings turning into a fledgling is very high. Plants need love to grow, she says. Scientific studies have shown that music promotes plant growth.
One’s garden is the place where fifty shades are discovered, not necessarily grey and black. Bright orange with a tinge of yellow, green with purple tint and flavoursome myriad chroma is up for grabs. Hence, lucky is the gardener who gets to bring alive different shades in all their glory.
The picture of a perfect garden brings forth memories of my childhood. My parents had nearly 60 square feet space exclusively for a kitchen garden where a huge guava tree, with its branches sprawled all over to our neighbour’s compound, was slouched, laden with big, ripe fruits. To give it company, stood a pomegranate tree, the fruits of which cracked open upon ripening, displaying white and red pearl-like granules. Those two, the Queen and the King of our garden, were planted right at the entrance. They were vicariously the guardians of my mother’s nest. Besides the giants, we had a banana tree, mango, rubber and gooseberry among a host of other varied flower plants, standing with elan, radiating the splendour of the grass.
It is said that passion drives any hobby. Such is the happiness my mother derives from gardening even today that she prunes and plods on her own. Once I suggested that she get a mower to trim the radiant Rangoon creeper (Madhumalati in Hindi), in our front yard. She said, "It is like asking a stranger to cut the beautiful tresses of my baby. I don’t know how he would do it." She brought chair, mounted on it and pruned the deceased foliage with her own hands. She did this without an iota of troubled expression on her face. On the contrary, her face beamed with a sense of accomplishment.
Hence, the time is ripe to prune back, plod ahead and pray softly to enjoy the bountiful harvest. Let all cares melt away when you kneel down to your garden.