The Spirit of Place

The ‘Why’ of Gardening What’s up with gardeners anyway? What motivates us to plan, organize, manage and control a piece of this earth we call

The ‘Why’ of Gardening

What’s up with gardeners anyway? What motivates us to plan, organize, manage and control a piece of this earth we call our garden? The obvious sensual pleasures of intriguing shapes and sizes, tantalizing colors, alluring fragrances and delicious produce often top the list. Yet our reasons for gardening run deeper than surface delights. So, let’s start digging.

But to begin, we need a tool—and the first one that pops to mind is the little graphic pyramid of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs I recall from Psych 101 many decades ago. With apologies to my scholarly friends in psychology for random musings on serious science, we’re ready now to unearth some of the “whys” of gardening.

At the base of Maslow’s pyramid, our most basic human needs are physiological and, on this level, the answer to “Why?” is simple.

The earth has plants, and we need them for food and medicinal purposes to survive. Since the beginning of our time here on earth, we humans have gathered plant materials (grains, fruits, vegetables) wherever they grew in nature. We then began to cultivate them closer to home and livelihood, and small gardens evolved into farms.

Next, we leapt into agribusiness, biotech and chemical companies for mass-produced food and health products. And today, disillusioned with big business, many of us have joined the movement to return to growing our own fresh food, herbal remedies and ornamentals in home gardens and local farms.

Gardens also provide oxygen for the very air we breathe. In the 19th century, with increasing industrialization and concentration of masses of people in dirty, polluted cities in desperate need of air purification, Josep Fontserè, designer of the magnificent El Parc de la Ciutadella in Barcelona, noted that “gardens are for the city as lungs are for the human body.”

We gardeners know intuitively that gardens meet our need for fresh air and sunshine, exercise and mental rest for our health and well-being. Your Brain on Nature by Eva M. Selhub, MD, and Alan C. Logan, ND, actually provides scientific evidence on why we need nature for our “health, happiness and vitality.”

For some of us (including myself), we simply have a primal need to dig in the dirt—or in my case, red clay and mud. I’m no scientist, but I think it’s in our DNA.

Since the middle ages, walled and cloistered (and now fenced) gardens have offered protection from physical harm and loss of garden bounty to all sorts of predators—human and wildlife alike—to assure owners of meeting their need for security of their food supply. Thus, this brings us to “safety” as the next need in Maslow’s hierarchy.

Today we have laws and regulations to ensure the purity and safety of our food products and the prevention of ill-effects from chemicals. Yet gardeners who don’t trust big business are returning to growing their own in the belief that this is the safer and healthier choice.

Many gardeners are just trying to make a living. Gardens offer personal and financial security through employment for an entire sector of our economy in the food and green industries, from growers to distributors to sellers, and from local farmers markets and nurseries to grocery store chains and the big box stores. The economic impact of the environmental horticulture industry alone is estimated in the billions of dollars.

Gardens also meet our need for a psychological safety net, a sanctuary from cares, demands and threats of the world.

They serve as a retreat that engulfs body and mind into a safe place for mental health and healing.

Love and Belonging
With basic physical and safety needs met, we humans need connection with others and our gardens offer opportunity for friendship, family and intimacy. Literature through recorded history tells us how gardens meet the human need for love and belonging. In Victorian times, flowers were the language of love; a gift of bluebells meant kindness while tulips represented passion.

My garden club and master gardener friends are important to my well-being. We grow, give and exchange horticulture specimens, arrange flowers, share tips and commiserate in garden failures. We belong to each other in spirit and deed in our passion for gardening. This “belonging” means that we work together to share that passion in our community, pouring hours of our lives into garden education, conservation and restoration projects.

Gardens are also a place for living legacies. Mine includes daffodils passed down from generation to generation and as birthday gifts from Mom during the last years of her life, roses from cousin Patsy, mountain mint from sister Jan, garden phlox from neighbor Joyce, forget-me-nots from friend Susan, cleome from co-worker Linda and a Mother’s Day snowball bush from husband Tim.

It’s also a gathering place for family, where grown-ups revel in family ties that bind over dinner and a glass of wine, and kids run, jump, and play “hide and seek” and experience their first tea party.

History is resplendent with extreme examples of royals and others whose need for acclaim and esteem resulted in flamboyant gardens equal to their extravagant edifaces. These are gardens that reflect wealth, power and control. Consider Versailles, Blenheim Palace or Hampton Court.

That ilk of gardener is all but gone, and many of the remaining showplace gardens of Europe, the United States and elsewhere are supported now not by personal or national wealth and control, but by public trust and tourism. These gardens continue to instill respect and esteem for their owners and managers.

Central Virginia gardeners and gardener lovers take pride in our public garden projects as well. We gain esteem from recognition of our hard work toward restoration and maintenance of the Old City Cemetery gravegarden, the Anne Spencer garden, Poplar Forest grounds and more.

Local gardeners enjoy and recognize each other’s garden successes, thereby satisfying what Maslow calls the need for esteem—respect of others and self-esteem. What gardener would deny feeling proud to be complimented on a prize winning daffodil, rose or tomato? Some of us can even satisfy this need by a few simple Facebook “likes” for a photo we post of a new bloom.

In his original hierarchy, the peak of Maslow’s pyramid was self-actualization, or “being the most you can be.” This is now recognized as an ethnocentric perspective unique to our individualistic culture. It conveys the basic idea of realizing one’s full potential after mastering the previous needs, and it tells us that the “why” of gardening is more than meeting physical, safety, love/belonging and self-esteem needs.
Michael Pollan, in Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education said, “A garden should make you feel you’ve entered privileged space—a place not just set apart but reverberant—and it seems to me that, to achieve this, the gardener must put some kind of twist on the existing landscape, turn its prose into something nearer poetry.” Or as Gertrude Jekyll, the famous English horticulturalist and garden designer, said, “Planting ground is painting a landscape for living things.”

My simple country garden, although never to be famous like the many designed by Gertrude Jekyll, is my artistic expression—an abstract expressionist painting of organic shapes and a riot of colors. Well, in truth, it’s more of a chaotic Jackson Pollack than a polished Gertrude Jekyll landscape. But, hey, it is what it is, and I can be!

For me, gardening and writing these musings meet personal self-actualization needs, hopefully with a benefit to others who may take pleasure in my garden and words, learn something new, see gardens in a new way or find inspiration to become a new gardener.

Later in life, Maslow took his hierarchy theory a step further and added that “the self finds self-actualization in giving itself to some higher goal outside oneself, in altruism and spirituality.”

With altruism, self-actualization is realized in service to others without seeking benefit to self, as exemplified by master gardeners serving countless hours to instill in inner-city school children the value and benefit of gardens, raising food in urban deserts and sharing knowledge of gardens with others through the Speakers Bureau.

Members of The Garden Club of Virginia (GCV) also dedicate themselves to a cause that transcends individual self-actualization “to celebrate the beauty of the land, to conserve the gifts of nature and to challenge future generations to build on this heritage.” The GCV’s Historic Garden Week has raised millions of dollars for garden conservation and restoration projects across the Commonwealth, all for the public good.
I once read that “to nurture a garden is to feed not just the body, but the soul.” In 1918, Richardson Wright commented in House and Garden on the deep, quiet joy in gardening that grows outwardly from the heart. We gardeners know we serve only as bit players in the miracle of the transformation of a seed into a green leaf, bright flower or tasty fruit. But we do have a feeling when we’re grubbing in the dirt that we are “in at the creation” of something.

In our gardens we are transcended beyond self and are in touch with the spirit of place and our very souls. We have reached a holy place, our own Heaven on earth, Zen-zone, Nirvana. We know when this happens. And peace floods over us.


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