An Introduction to Mindful Gardening

Mindfulness is a tricky thing – if you’re thinking about whether you’re thinking about things, then… you’re still thinking. Mindfulness seems to be the sort of activity where less is more; less you, less effort on thinking, less focus on achieving some goal… somehow leads to feeling more yourself, having a more capable mind, and building the discipline to work towards your goals.

So what is mindfulness? It’s about paying attention, in the long run. Controlling your thoughts is well nigh impossible. Sometimes things just come up! Controlling your emotions is quite difficult too. You might ignore them, you might try to tamp them down, but they do arise. In moments of mindfulness, we can choose what to pay attention to. When mindfully sitting, we let thoughts flow by as we simply sit and observe. We do not let them take root, we do not pretend they don’t exist.  

Mindful Gardening is not far off. There’s just a touch more watering and pruning involved.

Be sure to check out my latest guided meditation!

The Quiet of the High Desert Mindful Foliage

Thinking of the mind or the emotions as separate from the self, or as a part that need not influence the rest, is both how we build mindfulness and how we practice it. 

If you’re mad at a flower, it does almost nothing to the flower. The only way your anger affects the flower is when it turns into a physical action… or, in not wanting to deal with the issue, neglecting it. Your emotions and your mind aren’t far off from this – anger can be swirling around inside your head, pushing you to say this or do that… but it only actually the world outside when you grant it the power and ability to do so. 

Instead of letting that anger take hold with a too-aggressive pruning cut, we can simply sit and observe the flower. Focus on it. Take it all in, irrespective of our thoughts about it. And only then, once our thoughts have had their way and our emotions have run their course, do we finally act on the plant. Mindfulness, here, is about paying attention to something outside of yourself – not an emotion, not a feeling, not a goal – so that the self can kindly get out of the way.

Gardening is perfect for this sort of detached observation. You can observe the plants, you can react to them, you can understand them and act to change things – but you can’t truly control them. Barring any psychic harm, your words have no effect on whether the plant wants to grow that day or wither. 

You can only set your plants in the best conditions possible, and watch the magic. We humans aren’t much different. Our goal should be to place our minds in the best possible conditions, through purposefully positive thoughts (when we’re in control) and by not reacting to the negative thoughts (when they arise unbidden). You can’t control every single thought. You can’t expect to never have a bad thought or a strange, errant idea. But you can do what you can to make your mind, body, and environment as clean and conducive to positive thinking as possible – then see what happens. Observe the outcome, let it come into being, and continue practicing at making everything a little better. Try to cultivate your mind for happiness the way you cultivate your garden for the happiness of the plants.

I most try to practice paying attention, and not simply letting my attention jump from one interesting thing to the next most interesting. I make sure to keep my phone away so that I don’t provide easy opportunities to get distracted. This is the most straightforward way to practice some sort of mindfulness when my plants are around. And aren’t they lovely and deserving of my full attention anyway?

Another aspect where mindful gardening shines is in learning to control your responses. Most of the time, a problem that a plant is experiencing will not be decided in the next minute. There’s time. You have moments – sometimes days or weeks – to see a problem, come to terms with it, and pick your response. A wilting leaf doesn’t need an immediate and forceful snip – though if it does, that snip deserves to be well-aimed and well-intended. It must be intended to help the plant. Side benefit; when the plant is feeling better from proper care, you don’t have to worry about it as much. Then you feel better too!

You can be mindful at any time, if you let yourself. I enjoy the regular mindful gardening session, nearly every morning if it’s hot outside. Mindful gardening is just what it sounds like – really paying attention to the plants

Since I squeeze this into the morning between getting ready for the day and going to work, I have to be mindful about which plants I spend my time on. I put away anything not gardening related, giving my full attention to all the plants at my disposal. This is a little easier for me with only a balcony to care for, than for people with gardens on more than one side of the house. If you have a few growing spaces, you may want to focus on one discrete area at a time.

Doing a small bit of mindful gardening in the morning is a great way to start the day, and gets me up and moving around some lovely nature. Hummingbirds are great alarm clocks.

Once each needy-looking plant is identified, I have to determine what exactly needs to be done. I look over all the plants I’ll be focusing on for the day, one at a time. I focus very carefully on looking only at a single plant at any given moment – a single stalk, from the ground to the crown. Instead of letting my mind and my eyes jump between a dozen different plants while trying to put a list together, each plant gets a moment to tell me all about itself. Simpler is often also quicker, as I don’t feel so much need to double check. 

Then, I have to remind myself to step back – look at the larger picture. If there’s a dozen stalks of cress in the same planter, and they’re all leaning to the same side – I should probably turn the whole planter, as that seems like a phototropic issue. If my calendar says it’s time to fertilize the soil or repot, I need to check all the occupants for signs that the plants are ready for it. If they’ve been growing quickly recently and have likely used up their food, or are settling into hibernation.

Then I take another step back, and look at how all the planters are faring with these new notes. See if there’s some general trend; maybe the season is changing, and the handrail on the balcony leaves a shadow at a different angle. Maybe one planter is shadowing others and needs to be moved to the back. 

I then get on with the watering. Not all the plants are going to need water most days, so I start by figuring out which ones do. I like first checking with my finger, the easy way; I stick my finger in any dirt that looks potentially dry. Once I find wetness, I stop and try to figure out the depth. I’m not particularly good at it, and I often question if I’m reading it right. Being mindful has helped me most with this aspect of my gardening, as paying careful and quiet attention adds a level of surety in what I find. I also find less need to remember or track a watering schedule, as I’ve become fairly good at picking up on which plants need water, and when. Once I’ve checked the wetness, I pat any divot closed. Only then do I start watering the one planter I just checked. Each planter or pot gets its treatment one at a time. 

Potted plants enjoy being thoroughly watered and then being allowed to rest and drink until they’re ready again. In the past, I would add small amounts of water every day, leading to many problems. Watering slowly, carefully, helps ensure the soil is fully flushed with water. I make sure to water close to the soil, near the base of each plant. I aim to disturb the soil as little as possible. It never works, and some debris inevitably shifts around; it’s simply a method to make sure I’m pouring at a steady and careful rate, responsive to the different soil that is in each pot. 

My favorite moments of mindfulness are when I’m watering. If I’m paying attention very closely, I can hear the soil crackle as it drinks in water. I watch very intently as I pour the water on the top of the dirt, seeing how it pools and runs. Then I watch it sink in, listening to that gentle bubbling. Sometimes the soil will shift as this change happens. I’m not sure if ceramic pots amplify the sound, but go ahead and put your ear near one and see if you can hear it too!

It’s lovely, and even more so when I let myself be entranced by it.

If the plants needed pruning, it’ll get started on its own day, or after watering. I make sure to snip only what is needed. I try to hold each pruned piece while cutting so that I can delicately take it away. If there are bugs that need removing, as the occasional black scale on my olive tree, I carry each bug away from the plant once it’s removed.

Gardening in this way is certainly more time consuming than some splash-and-dash mornings that I’m forced to have. That makes them all the more special.

If you’ve got even a single plant, please set aside some time to really take it in. Listen to it, observe it, feel it, smell it, taste it if it’s edible. Help it to grow by giving it the best conditions you can, and it will respond with its best effort to thrive. Treat your mind well by cultivating a positive environment for your thoughts, and they’ll respond with their best efforts too.

Thanks for stopping by! I hope you had a pleasant time checking out the plants. If you’re in the mood for more nature, please stay in touch!


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