Written by MG Leonard


Gardening: seriously good shit

It’s National Gardening Week, but MG Leonard doesn’t need dates on the calendar to remind her how much she bloody loves her horticultural fix.

flowers and watering can
I don’t know about you, but my nerves are frazzled. I haven’t been this stressed about the state of the world since 2001, after 9/11, which was also when I got into gardening.

Back in 2001, news reports triggered panic attacks and migraines. I cut TV and radio from my life and listened to a lot of classical music, until I was certain World War Three wasn’t about to kick off, and I really got into gardening, like when a woman with bad PMT discovers Feminax (that is some good shit).

Now, because of smartphones, I can accidentally see a news headline when I’m trying to look at a text message from my son. My brain is regularly catapulted into a crowded place where everyone is shouting, some hysterically, and a twatty bunch of right-wing misogynists bellow things that twist my insides and make me angry, frightened or sad. I struggle to block out the noise about Trump, Brexit and impeding economic doom, and so the familiar panic in my chest rises.

There is, however, one place where the relentless cacophony of negative crap fades into birdsong and the calming hum of insects, and that is in my garden. I don’t carry my phone into the garden. I don’t need it. It would get in the way, or covered in mud or dropped in a watering can.

“At the weekend I will head out into my garden at 9am, with a mug of tea, and start tending my flowerbeds and before I know it, it’s 5pm, and I’ve been digging, lifting, mowing, pruning, stretching and crouching for hours.”

CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) helped me, when anxiety followed by depression got bad enough for me to be signed off work by a doctor, but the regular medicine that has turned my head around is gardening.

Digging in soil is a deeply satisfying thing. It takes me back to being 10 years old and looking for worms. The repetitive physical activity induces a mental state in which I’m capable of contemplative thought. I think at a slower pace than normal; my brain floats along a stream of consciousness as I dig.

We are all food for worms. If you think about it, soil is basically dead stuff and poo. How marvellous that it produces flowers of such beauty, our grains and our fruit. We are all destined to be soil one day, and as I happily dig a hole for a lavender bush, I’m OK with that.

Gardening helps me to accept my mortality and see it as part of a cycle of life that I observe all year round in my flowerbeds. Every dog-rose has its day and they turn their faces towards the sunshine; so should I.

bee on forget-me-nots
I should do more exercise than I do, but I find jogging boring and the idea of going into a gym fills me with horror. Hoovering the stairs can be a bit of a workout, and I take the kids swimming, although rarely manage more than a couple of half-hearted lengths (and don’t get me started on my hatred of swimming costumes).

However, at the weekend I will head out into my garden at 9am, with a mug of tea, and start tending my flowerbeds and before I know it, it’s 5pm, and I’ve been digging, lifting, mowing, pruning, stretching and crouching for hours.

All the while, I’m breathing fresh air, not once looking at my phone, and I feel good, great even, happy in a peaceful way. I’ll sing to myself, and stare at the gossiping plants, entertained by their beauty and the visiting hoverflies flirting with their flowers.

If you want a cheap safari, lie down on your belly and keep your eyes peeled for invertebrates. I guarantee you’ll see 10 different species of creature within 10 minutes, from an iridescent rosemary beetle to a butterfly. Roll onto your back and you have a cloud cinema to entertain you.

ladybird on grass stem
As I garden I learn: about the wants and needs of plants, about the world of mini beasts and I think about my place on this planet.

Choosing plants to add to my garden feels creative. I’m expressing myself. I like a traditional English cottage garden where flowers grow alongside vegetables and soft fruit, which my children can eat as they play.

I select a rich mix of plants to bring in a variety of insects, and I love the fragrant herbs. I plant camomile in the grassy lawn, because when it’s crushed underfoot it realises a heavenly scent, and I can’t get enough of lavender; its fragrance soothes my anxiety and its flowers bring the bees and butterflies.

As I dead-head and tie up climbers, I’m soaking in vitamin D, and when the rain comes, if I’m busy, I stay out in it, rather than running from it, and you know what, being rained on is not so bad. It’s nicer than having to hear about that orange bottom burp the Americans are forced to call the president or the raft of lemmings that once called themselves the Brexiteers.

Yesterday marked the start of National Gardening Week. If you’ve never got your hands dirty, you should give it a try. It’s good for whatever ails you.


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Written by MG Leonard

MG Leonard’s latest book, Beetle Queen, the second in the Beetle trilogy, is published by Chicken House on 6 April in paperback. Follow her @MGLnrd