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In the Garden

Solace Found in the Good Earth

Digging, planting and cultivating offer a home-grown form of therapy.

November 15, 2001|SUSAN HEEGER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In Southern California, November tends to be a kind month, not like the wind-whipped, cold-rattled time it is in other zones, where winter comes early. Here, in the garden behind my house, the pomegranate still has its flame-like blooms, the rosemary and westringia are flowering purple and the bougainvillea heaped on the garage is a blaze of gold.

More and more lately, I find myself drifting out there when there are other things I should be doing--to clip the rosemary hedges, feed the citrus trees, rake sycamore leaves, pull weeds. There is an order and a logic to gardening that soothes the spirit when the world seems to be falling apart. Prune a hedge, you put a picture to rights. Yank the weeds and mulch the beds, you vanquish the invaders and make the realm richer and safer for those you love.

These are small things, but they loom large to a gardener, one who spends hours sketching lines on the ground, crawling through dirt, digging in seeds and seedlings and steering by the seasons in an effort to call imagined scenes to life. To feel the Earth's life through cramped hands.

It's nothing new, this gardening urge: distraction, affirmation, spiritual refuge, self-therapy. Throughout history, gardens have been all these things to the people who have worked in them. As far back as the 5th century BC, Persian gardens, with their enclosed walks, flowering trees and bubbling fountains, symbolized paradise on Earth. For medieval Europeans, walled, orderly gardens providing sustenance and medicinal herbs meant safety and security from human and animal threats.

In more modern times, the healing aspects of gardening itself have been explored through horticultural therapy, which uses hands-on planting and tending to help rehabilitate patients with a range of complaints, from addiction to Alzheimer's. Then, of course, there is the historically patriotic aspect of home-food plots, dubbed "Victory Gardens" during World War II, when they helped feed the nation and boost its overall morale.

It could be that in Los Angeles, where we can garden so much of the year, we rely even more than most on the solace we find outside. Like me, since mid-September, film producer Eva Strickland has been gardening with a vengeance, calling it, "My own form of therapy; a good friend in a time of grief."

Six years ago when her mother died, Strickland cleared a piece of her Kagel Canyon hillside and planted roses and azaleas. "I needed a place to be alone and sad," says Strickland, who, with her husband, Richard, owns the Hollywood-based company Blue Canyon Productions. True, the demands of her busy job slowly edged out the nurturing impulse. But since Sept. 11, she has gone back outside, this time to grow edibles.

"Again, my garden's vital to me," she reflects. "It's where I go out under the sky, feel my body, plunge my hands into the dirt."

In West Hollywood, Michael Hauser has had a similar impulse. An office manager who lives in an apartment, he spent the equivalent of several days holed up with his TV, watching endlessly repeated clips of planes crashing into buildings as commentators tried to sort out what had happened.

Then, one morning, he had a revelation. A few weeks earlier, he had rented a plot in a nearby community garden, one of several around L.A. where, for a nominal fee, and until space runs out, local residents can have a piece of ground for growing vegetables and other plants. "That plot was sitting idle," Hauser recalls. "I suddenly thought, 'Go. Get out there. Reconnect with the earth."'

Since mid-October, Hauser, whose gardening efforts have been limited for years to potted plants, has started lettuce, broccoli and cauliflower seedlings, edging these with fragrant herbs and digging bulbs in for the spring. "Gardening," he says, "helps me keep fear at a distance. Instead of worrying about anthrax, I'm in the moment, watching plants grow."

Hauser is not alone. At the Outdoor Room, a Pacific Palisades nursery, customers have been snapping up blooming annuals--pansies, primroses, sweet alyssum--faster than owner Sandy Kennedy can keep them stocked. And twice since mid-September, a time of year she describes as "normally quiet," the nursery has sold out its inventory of bulbs, especially daffodils and tulips. "A lot of customers are planting these themselves," she says, "which isn't usual for this neighborhood. I think they're buying plants to feel better--flowers for instant cheer, bulbs as a sign of hope: that something good lies ahead."

Which is what Van Nuys garden guru Lili Singer expresses in the current issue of her bimonthly newsletter, the Gardener's Companion: "Every time we sow a seed, it is an act of faith, and each time we water a plant, we ... exhibit confidence in the future."

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