Gardening for the heart

Published 12:00 am Saturday, February 11, 2023

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

Gardening for the heart is more than the sum of completed tasks and their physical benefits. Even the tiniest efforts boost mental and emotional wellbeing.

Garden Hearts, one of the little tabletop books I published years ago, features photos of heart shapes in gardens taken all over the world. It’s a nod to the expression of romance in gardens, which is often overlooked in our quest for the perfect lawn.

Not trying to diss the obvious muscle-and-bones workouts, because sometimes-aching backs and sore shoulders are reminders that some garden chores are intense. But a lot of the exercise values are over-rated; even folks who mow their own lawns, which certainly provides a welcome sense of accomplishment for those of us who work at desks, actually perform just occasional spring and summer push-and-pull route marches. And the only body benefits that raking leaves, turning compost, strewing mulch, and marathon weeding sessions have in common is that they only need doing maybe twice a year. And rolling up the hose hardly counts as a stretching exercise!

Fresh air? In a lifelong attempt to purge my body of all the DDT I inhaled while chasing the mosquito-control “fogging truck” as a kid, I get plenty of fresh air during my long daily walks. And the pesticide-free vegetables I harvest from my small-raised bed garden – baskets of fresh salad greens, nutrient-dense peppers, plump blueberries, culinary herbs, and more English peas than I actually care for – I’d probably have bought at the store anyway.

Besides, where are the health benefits from eating figs that I put up in Kerr and Mason jars of liquefied sugar? Or homegrown okra that’s been fried and smothered in ketchup?

So here’s looking at the deeper, more meaningful non-physical benefits of gardening. Intangibles like the transient swirl of thoughts and emotions conjured when we hang our faces over the sink, juice dribbling down our elbows after biting into a warm, soft tomato, freshly picked off the vine at the last possible moment so its flavors and natural sugars – and yes, fragrance – are at their peak. And I feel good mentally when buying at the local farmers’ market, knowing I’m not only eating local but also helping my truck-farming friends keep shoes on their kids’ feet.

There are other little soul-healthy things, like sharing cuttings from Granny’s night blooming cereus, putting a few zinnias in a vase by my computer even when I’m the only one who will see them, showing a kid how to put together a simple little bouquet of wildflowers (“something long and skinny, something with a round flower, and something frilly in between”)…doing those are nothing BUT good for mental health.

There are even more subtle, oft-ignored cues, like how fingertips tingle after being scrubbed free of compost, and the little itchy burn left by dewberry bramble pricks. Smelling a magnolia flower, and the musky aroma of dirt pulled from soil just before a summer rain. Hearing an owl calling its mate from couple of streets over. Putting out birdseed. Throwing sticks at squirrels. Helping a stranded earthworm off the sidewalk (surely, I’m not the only one).

Very important: the healthy social exercises made possible through gentle debates with other gardeners over esoteric trivia (should we call the antique Philadelphus shrub mock orange or English dogwood? Do paperwhite Narcissus really smell like cat urine?).

These common “everyday doings” remind us subtly that we are alive, kicking, staying active. Yet, more than keeping us fit, they also foster good feelings, and gratitude, bringing valentines our way every day. What can be more heart-healthy?

Felder Rushing is a Mississippi author, columnist, and host of the “Gestalt Gardener” on MPB Think Radio. Email gardening questions to