I didn’t think much about gardening until the world was thrown into chaos. My childhood home, a terraced council house in the Black Country, was backed by a modest rectangle of grass, a concrete path and wooden fences. Gardens in the area were either weed-ridden jungles or greyscale parking spaces. My only window into gardening was via my Grandad’s allotment; he took me along once or twice, to wander past cabbages curled like great big roses, the scent of damp earth and ripening fruit heavy in the air. I was intrigued but assumed this world wasn’t meant for me.
Over a decade later, I neglected the concrete jungle outside my converted warehouse in North London. I cared for houseplants with growing intensity, but lockdown forced me to pay attention to the world outside my front door. By way of phone calls, Whatsapp messages and shaky FaceTimes, I watched my parents embrace gardening, transforming their back garden into an oasis. I longed for a similar sense of peace and meaning. Fuelled by the crippling combination of anxiety, uncertainty and boredom, I boiled with an urge to grow and nurture.
“Suddenly, a shoot the size of a fingernail appeared, framed by two brushstrokes of a leaf. Whilst it’s an everyday act of nature, to me it was pure magic.”
I gathered seeds in earnest; courgette, kale, squash, tomato and wildflowers. I found homes for them to lay down roots. Egg boxes, old paper cups, rows of black plastic pots. Here, I learnt my first lesson in gardening. Sowing seeds is an act of trust and patience. You push seeds into compost and cross your fingers.
Every day I’d wonder what was bubbling beneath the seemingly still, lifeless soil. Then, suddenly, a shoot the size of a fingernail appeared, framed by two brushstrokes of a leaf. Whilst it’s an everyday act of nature, to me it was pure magic.
My enthusiasm was punctured somewhat by a subsequent string of setbacks. Kale seeds never sprouted from their sodden egg boxes, squash shrivelled in the shade, a courgette yellowed and dried as its leaves were lost to hungry snails. I pruned a tomato plant but did it all wrong; I couldn’t keep the insects from decimating lettuce leaves, and I despaired at glistening slime trails.
“You cannot force a plant to bend the way you want it to, nor can you dictate the shape of a courgette. The beauty is not in structural perfection but the uniqueness of its character. .”
So came another lesson: a gardener cannot be precious. We take the loss in our stride, focusing on how we can adapt to better serve the ecosystem. We accept that failure is part of the process. Sometimes, plants must sacrifice their wilted leaves to support eager bursts of green.
Similarly, a gardener cannot be a perfectionist. You cannot force a plant to bend the way you want it to, nor can you dictate the shape of a courgette. The beauty is not in structural perfection but the uniqueness of its character.
This year, I learnt from my mistakes. I chose old favourites and fast-growing fruit and herbs; chillies, strawberries, rocket, basil, coriander, parsley. I placed them up high, where only the most determined snails would reach them. I planted flowers to welcome bees and butterflies. For the first time, I watched a green strawberry push out of a white flower, which blushed blood red in the summer sun. I picked it, and my tastebuds sang.
I’ve known depression for most of my life. It comes in waves that slam into me and steal my breath. It’s a feeling of sinking; of dropping below to murky depths. When I struggle to articulate the deadening pressure of depression, I think of Sylvia Plath’s brilliant writing in The Bell Jar: “Wherever I sat – on the deck of a ship or at a street café in Paris or Bangkok – I would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air.”
“Depression drains the colour out of your life, and I can’t see clearly in black and white – but when I turned my hand to nurturing life I burst into technicolour.”
For some people, depression is circumstantial. It evaporates when life changes are made. For me, depression is a stray cat with a rumbling tummy – it follows me down streets and across countries. It may leave for a while, but it always pops up again with a desperate meowing. It erodes my identity, leaving my soul in shards.
In the garden, the bell jar lifts, and my vision clears. I come alive. Depression drains the colour out of your life, and I can’t see clearly in black and white – but when I turned my hand to nurturing life I burst into technicolour. I step outdoors to observe what is blooming in the space I cultivated, and the world slows down a little. A tornado falls away to a calm sky as I plunge bare hands into the soil, massage delicate white roots, prune yellow leaves, breathe in the scent of Lavender, Rosemary and Cosmos. Gardening is the cheapest form of therapy.
“I ask myself, what could I become if I treated myself with the same understanding and compassion? Would I bloom, stretching my limbs to the sun? All signs point to yes.”
When depression tries to tell me that I am worthless, growing fruit and vegetables from seed reminds me I am not. On long days locked inside of my mind and my home, I’d escape to my little slice of paradise to monitor the progress. Being responsible for something beyond myself helped me escape the clawing suffocation of self-hatred.
Under a cloud of depression, the way I talk to myself is ugly. Yet I don’t chastise the plants that struggle. The seed may have been damaged in the packet and lost its nutrients. A pest may destroy a seedling before it has time to develop resilience. A young plant may grow slowly as it competes with bigger siblings for sun and germination. Once its basic needs are catered to, the rest is luck. I ask myself, what could I become if I treated myself with the same understanding and compassion? Would I bloom, stretching my limbs to the sun? All signs point to yes.
Above all, gardening has taught me that life is ferocious, vibrant and resilient. It’s shown me that failures are natural, expected and required for growth. My small, urban garden won’t be winning any awards, but when I pluck a marble-sized tomato from the vine, I’m reminded that there are pleasures to be found even on the darkest days.
Sian (she/they) is a Freelance journalist and Editorial Assistant for Journo Resources. @_sianabradley
Aurelia Magazine is self–funded. We rely on reader support to secure our future. If you enjoyed this article, please consider becoming a member on Patreon, or donating a couple of quid to our PayPal. Thank you!