One of the questions I’m asked most often by beginner gardeners is: “What should I grow?” It’s a fair place to start, if an unwieldy question. I tend to reply with more questions: How much sunlight does your space get? Do you want to eat your plants or admire their beauty? How much time, really, do you want to put in? Increasingly, though, I think the problem is in that second word: “should”.
I’ve never had formal horticultural training, preferring to scavenge intelligence off my better-informed friends. One of them has had greater influence on me than others – and, after non-organic practices and artificial lawns, he loathes “shoulds” being bandied around in the garden. Andrew Timothy O’Brien, who has recently published To Stand and Stare, a permission-granting manual to his own, refreshingly hands-off guide to horticulture, is a champion of more “mindful” gardening. “With increasingly busy lives, yet another list of chores seems like the very last thing any of us needs when it comes to our own practice of self-care, relaxation and renewal,” it says.
A connection between mind and garden is long-established in certain cultures. Japanese gardens have been designed around Buddhist teaching since the sixth century, and even today the country’s gardening theory prioritises an inward, rather than an outward, relationship with nature: how do we better ourselves by communing with the land, rather than enforcing our will upon it? It’s something Miki Sakamoto’s Zen in the Garden, which will appear in English in April (Scribe), might encourage Western minds to embody.
Perhaps if new gardeners asked more experienced ones what they could expect to feel from their gardens, they would get more inspiring answers. Most would rather tell you about how it allows them to escape from the to-do lists and chores of daily life.
This spring, I have little ambition in my garden other than to simply be.
This article was originally published on 25 March.
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This article appears in the 29 Mar 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special