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Of Soil and Soul

November 03, 1996|JANET KINOSIAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Kinosian is a Los Angeles freelance writer

Deep in their roots, all flowers keep the light.

--Poet Theodore Roethke


Do you believe that getting your hands dirty planting petunias will sooth your soul?

If so, you're not alone.

Next weekend visit a local nursery, notice the crowds and you'll know there's a movement afoot to--as Joni Mitchell's early '70s song "Woodstock" pleads --"get ourselves back to the garden."

"People are realizing when we garden, we're doing a lot more than just lawn maintenance," said Judith Handelsman, author of the book "Growing Myself, a Spiritual Journey Through Gardening" (Dutton, 1996).

"We are nature [ourselves], looking after and tending nature, and that not very complex act somehow takes on a spiritual and healing overtone," she said.

What happens when you garden, or even when you just spend time in the garden? Experts note many positive effects, among them:

* One hour in the garden will reduce your blood pressure the same as if you had meditated for that hour.

* Numerous hospitals and correctional agencies that have gardening programs report dramatic decreases in violent and antisocial behavior when gardening is part of the program.

* Gardening is the one art that stimulates all of the senses: You can smell, touch, see and taste plants, and hear them blowing in the breeze.

* Physiologists report heightened muscle relaxation, slower breathing and increased endorphin production among gardeners.

* Psychologists say self-esteem, patience levels and generosity are boosted when people garden.

Said simply: If you want to increase joyful feelings in yourself, find a garden.

"It's hard to quantify joy, peace and serenity in a scientific sense," said Sarah Conn, PhD, an eco-psychologist who teaches psychology at Harvard Medical School. Eco-psychology is a burgeoning field that studies human mental and emotional health with regard to things such as gardening, prayer, star-gazing and marathon running.


"Nature and plants are relatively indifferent to humans, so there's no performance anxiety, no stress," Conn said. "That's why people like to hang out in gardens so much."

Handelsman said most people intuit this, and that's why gardens and gardeners can be found in both Versailles and South-Central Los Angeles.

"This might sound dramatic, but I think people realize things are disconnected and have concluded it's either transform or die," she said. "And they're reaching out to something very basic to help them do that: gardening."

Gardeners agree on this: Tending plants teaches one about the true rhythm of life; that it can't be forced, only nurtured.

"One of the most difficult aspects of my job is trying to sell the concept of a time lapse," says Sarah Munster, a Los Angeles landscape designer for 10 years. "Particularly here, where the perception of time is instant and so many people think in terms of illusion."

Munster said she often will not hear from clients until a year after the garden is planted, and then comes the ecstatic call. "They'll usually say they can't believe it," she said, " 'It looks so beautiful,' almost as if they couldn't accept it until they saw the results."

She believes that one reason gardening slows us down is that gardens can't be hurried.

At the heart of gardening is the feeling that one is dropping a timetable constructed around dental appointments, car maintenance and freeways to enter a realm of unlocked time.

"[In gardening] people plunge headlong into a world entirely outside their control," noted Anna Pavord, a British gardening writer. "This, of course, is not a conscious feeling. When I wander out the back door to do some casual gardening, I don't say, 'Fancy that. I'm part of the great diurnal round.' I just get on with the weeding."

But with the absorption comes the notice of nature: the shrub in the dusk, the lavender in the light, "and that's the added dimension gardening adds," she said, "that you're actively involved in the process. It's like the good book and unlike TV."

"Gardens are also a place of refuge, a sanctuary from the profane world," wrote Julie Moir Messervy, author of "The Inward Garden: Creating a Place of Beauty and Meaning" (Little, Brown; 1995). "And most important, perhaps, a garden is a place in which to reckon with our inner being."

There's something about a garden's silence, psychologists say, that lowers the level of self-chatter, allowing the inner eye a more unobstructed view of what's really going on inside.

"I always tell people that I really just provide the environment," said Ginni Larson, head of the horticultural therapy program at the University of Minnesota. "I just bring people to the soil and let the earth do its own magic." She said that this therapy without words--like art, dance or music therapy--can be very powerful as it touches right-brain emotions.

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