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.

A Love Letter for the Season

This article originally appeared in The Curator November 20, 2009.

Dear Autumn,

You are the sexiest of all the seasons. When you come around, I drop everything and give myself to you wholly. I will be your mistress, and I will love you even on the darkest and greyest of days. I will lay in the grass and stare up at the nakedest of trees, thinking only of you.

I will never call you fall, only autumn. Fall is so pedestrian, and the way I feel about you is deep and serious and sophisticated. You are the season in which I was born, and I am saturated by you.

It’s my understanding that many people love summer, and prefer it to you. What are they thinking? No afternoon in the hot sun on the beach or beside the pool compares to a hike in an autumn wood or curling up under a fleece blanket beside a crackling fireplace. Who needs the bright colors of summer when they can have the curl of yellow, fiery red, or savory, scrumptious orange? I’d even take your crunchy browns over that summer gleam. I need to tell you that summer doesn’t hold a candle to you, especially for a northern girl who, like me, finds herself living south of the Mason-Dixon line. Spending the summer running from one air conditioned space to another is not my idea of a good time. I loathe air conditioning, and loathe summer all the more for making it necessary. Summer is the most painful of seasons.

Photo: Shari Altman

Photo: Shari Altman

So, every year I wait for you. Beginning in September, when I’ve had all I can take of humid, sweaty, melty days, I check the weather report religiously, waiting for your arrival. I trust that you will rescue me, and every year, without fail, you do. It’s always later than I would hope, usually mid-October, a good month or so after the calendar touts your arrival and long after you’ve swept through my old stomping grounds.

My family calls to tell me that it’s forty degrees when I’m still melting in eighty degree heat. Forty degrees may be cold, but I get jealous. I long for you. I want more than anything to pull down my box of sweaters and wear them all in your name. I want to walk outside and feel my cheeks flush at a passing breeze. I want you with me forever.

Though I am grateful to have you, I know that for now I don’t have you fully. Not here, where I currently call home. Where I live is subtropical, and you don’t venture that far south. Instead you blow kisses in my direction, enough to drop the temperatures a bit, but you prefer the north. You change the colors of their leaves, keep them swaddled in wool scarves and turtlenecks, and encourage the ample stocking of firewood. I don’t begrudge you this. After all, I decided to move away. What I didn’t realize is that I was leaving you. I took you for granted for so many years, and now that I yearn for you and want you back, I can’t have you. And you know it.

Photo: Shari Altman

This morning, I went for a walk looking for evidence of you. The sky was grey, swelling with the onset of a storm. The wind gusted and whipped my hair across my face. I saw block after block of green leaves on trees that refuse to admit that summer is over and it’s time to let go.

But then I turned a corner and saw it – just a glimpse. A swirl of brown leaves on the sidewalk peppered with tiny red rebellious leaves, ones that have embraced you, ones that I love. I thought about chasing after them and catching as many little red leaves as I could, but I didn’t want to go overboard. Lord knows who would’ve seen me on the side of the road stuffing leaves into my shirt like a crazed game show contestant or a scarecrow.

I’m not quite that crazy. Instead, my mother-in-law has promised to wax leaves from the north and send them to me soon. Autumn, it’s not soon enough – I want them now.

Photo: Shari Altman

You are so much more than cool temperatures and changing leaves. You are a season, a time frame. You are September, October, and November. You are the beginning of the school year and the ushering in of the holidays. You are apples and pumpkins, hayrides, and corn mazes. You are my reason to wear corduroy.

This is a love that will surely endure the test of time.

When my husband and I gear up for baseball playoffs and football Sundays, I know you are close. He spends hours in the kitchen making chili and I make apple crisp and pumpkin bread. It’s all we eat for weeks at a time. We drink pumpkin spice coffee in the mornings and pumpkin ale at night. We savor you.

Autumn, without you, my life would be incomplete. You are the scarf around my neck, the cool air tickling my nose. I love you unapologetically, forever and ever.