A guilty admission: I’ve become hooked on podcasts and audiobooks whilst gardening. Quite literally too – I have a leather holster I sling around my hips for my phone (trowel, pen, snips, and secateurs) and I weave my headphone cord up my shirt to keep it out of my way. No tool belt, no problem: I tuck my phone in a pocket or my bra – anything to stay plugged in.
My addictions run so deep I sometimes listen to gardening podcasts whilst gardening. How many hours does it take to listen to that blasted Goldfinch? Thirty-two, I discovered. Thirty-two hours I could have spent fully with my plants.
I’m worried I may have lost something in the midst of all the chatter, some elemental calm that gardening provides, so I thought I’d own up here and force myself to examine what it is about gardening that is actually good for us.
Is it the physical activity? Yes. Weeding burns about 200 calories an hour and mowing 306. Gardening is a mild form of exercise that adds up. Let’s say you garden six hours a week. That works out be 18,772 calories a year, the amount you would have burned running seven marathons. (Forget cardio and just relish in that stat: Seven marathons! Amazing how numbers can make us feel better, isn’t it? These are from The Guardian, and based on a study of English gardeners).
Still, numbers never tell the whole story. When it comes to mental health, what do we lose when we forsake silence in the garden?
Flow, apparently. ‘Flow’, in psychological terms, refers to an experience that we note as ‘optimal’, a time when we experience a kind of deep involvement with an activity. Some people stroll their way there, or paddle towards it, and many of us weed our way there, if there is a ‘there’, because flow is fluid, a kind of easy dancing of consciousness when thoughts come and go and we feel at peace. You needn’t be alone to achieve flow, but most people are solitary and many experience the feeling in nature. You feel comfortable in silence, your mind unspooling, your body working. You relax.
At this time of year in the garden, plants are growing with vigour, leaning into summer’s heat. The work can be almost overwhelming – watering, harvesting, feeding, weeding. It’s hot, we’re getting tired of all the soil and sweat, and maybe we’re getting a little bored of ourselves too, the more verbal amongst us even more susceptible to aural stimulation.
Or perhaps you feel as I do, that there isn’t enough time to read in these long days and it’s easier to seek out entertainment or edification by plugging in outside. The ol’ double-duty/multi-task it. I understand. But I also recognize that staying connected means losing some of the restoration gardening provides.
So while I can highly recommend CBC’s Ideas for weeding, or Terry Gross’ interviews for pop-cultural putzing, if you’re going beyond the slog, try to opt out. No one needs you. The birds are singing for you. You’re lucky – you have plants to grow.
Christin Geall teaches creative nonfiction at the University of Victoria and is an avid gardener.