James Witmer

James Witmer writes when he can, walks to work at a local t-shirt company, and spends his free time digging in the garden with his wife.

Gardening is Kindness


I married ten years ago this summer. Days after the honeymoon, my wife began gardening outside our rented home. I humored her, even helped her, because I was in love, and the flowers made her smile.

Then one evening I returned from a nerve-tightening day of selling televisions. (Oh, the things we do for money!) Too weary for the climb to our second-story apartment, I sat on the porch steps and looked at the daylilies, growing like 3-foot geysers on either side. The blooms stood quietly above their wilted predecessors, wearing only sunlight, but robed like kings. I was frazzled and depressed. They were whole, and at rest.

My insides slowed their erratic spinning, so I kept looking. Then — I’m not sure why — I reached out and broke off a dead bloom. And then another. Soon I was standing, tidying the patch of lilies and watching them stand prouder with each touch. I finished at peace, restored from workday hassle to quiet and thankfulness.

It wasn’t my inner hippie I discovered that day, but scientific fact: “Flowers generate happiness,” according to the Department of Horticultural Sciences at Texas A&M University. And not just happiness, but well-being:

The influence of plants can increase memory retention up to twenty percent, stimulating the senses and improving mental cognition and performance.

People who keep flowers in their home feel happier and more relaxed. [Their] chances of suffering from stress-related depression are decreased as well.

Work performed under the natural influence of ornamental plants is normally of higher quality than work done in environments devoid of nature.

The soothing effects of ornamental flowers and plants are so great that having daily views of flowers and other ornamental plants in landscaped areas outside patient recovery room can significantly speed up recovery time. (DHS, A&M)

Plants reduce our stress even while we are driving, and a Gallup study found “physical beauty and green spaces” is one of the top three reasons people become attached to their local communities. (“Perceptions of the local economy,” by contrast, “do not have a very strong relationship to resident attachment.”)

Of course, we didn’t really need scientists to tell us this. The poets have been saying it for centuries. “…Proud-pied April, dressed in all his trim, Hath put a spirit of youth in everything,” wrote William Shakespeare (Sonnet XCVIII).

But how often do we inhale the spirit of spring? How often do we stop to breathe? It’s easy to ignore as we shuttle from home to office, the store, and back again. We watch life like a television, seeing only what is before us. It ages our minds, and dims our wonder at the natural world.

A good garden magnifies spring so that we cannot miss it. We might drive by a wildflower, unaware. But try ignoring fifty purple tulips, standing with fifty purple allium against a chartreuse backdrop of spirea. Spring is dancing, and you WILL watch!

A better garden serves in all seasons, calling us again and again to wonder, creativity, or peace. This is why I say gardening is an act of kindness – even love. The thought and labor of one person (the gardener) benefits others who invested none.

When a gardener labors through afternoon heat to make a peaceful place for evening talks, she teaches her family the espoused values of diligence and rest. When she arranges her plants to look good both from her window and from across the street, she loves her neighbors as herself. A garden is a gift enhanced by the giver’s shared enjoyment, like a lingering kiss or a good pie.

I have had abundant chance to ponder this. We own a home now, and my wife’s gardening has transformed our once-simple lot. New acquaintances recognize our address: “Oh, you’re the house with all the flowers!”

Yes, the constantly-blooming flower beds, and flowering trees, and a circular lawn connecting two clipped grass paths, and a small “woodland” planted with shy wildflowers, and a picket fence supporting cascades of flowering vines, and a pedestal water fountain by a slate patio screened with flowering shrubs. The daylilies (of course they moved with us) are no longer a pair of geysers, but an array of fountains rivaling the Bellagio display.

About once a week, someone new stops their car and shouts into the yard where my wife works: “I love your gardens!” Some of them drive out of their way to pass us as they go to work every day.

I live surrounded by beauty. In a plant-based economy, I would have an embarrassment of riches. But every so often, on a walk down our small-town streets, I like to stop and admire a simple porch-step planting. It doesn’t take great talent to grow something beautiful. Just a couple plants, a bit of work, and the love to see it through. Every flower counts.