The Spiritual Gardener: Must You Get Your Hands Dirty?

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Here we are then, weeks away from the official first day of spring, and already I notice the winter air has fundamentally changed its character – from the bitter, harsh air of early winter with all its heavy snowfalls, to the cold, humid air of late winter with just a breath of the possibility of spring rejuvenation in it. Temperatures have risen ever so slightly too, with today’s brushing past 10 C. (50 F).  Just.  And not that it will last of course, in this highly variable season, but one takes what one gets.

Are you longing for spring? Yeah, me too. It will not be long now, and we will be strolling trough fields of daffodils under a purple haze of Oklahoma redbuds, not just in our fevered imaginations, but in glorious reality.

Walking around town this weekend with the companionship of an old friend of a dog, I notice a few cheering sights. Winter jasmine is blooming brightly along near Main Street and several homes lucky enough to have snowdrops (or gardeners hard-working enough to have planted them, as I in my laziness did not, once again this year) are enjoying this first bloomer in our town, often in very large, naturalized patches from which you may deduce that they have been there for a very long time indeed.

In our own garden, spring has sort of arrived (not really) as it always does with the hyacinths, of which we have one small pink flower blooming with precisely just three tiny pink bugles.  So, it is a rather modest beginning of all the promised glories to come, and even then you have to get right down on your knees by the ivy near the stone walk around the garage to appreciate their beauty and get a tiny whiff of the hyacinth perfume.

Further along on my walk today, I noticed one otherwise rather nondescript home with half a dozen large bunches of primroses growing in the front yard, their bold colors making them look almost fake in their cheerfulness. One does not see these grown very much in this country, though they are such a staple of English gardens and indeed of the English countryside, and you may wonder why not.

Perhaps they are too common and unpretentious, too easy and simple, to attract serious attention from gardeners here. We have a national mania for pansies, it would seem, which is rather harmless as national manias go, but the primrose is far superior to the pansy, in my opinion. Perhaps their bright chromatic colors are thought unsophisticated, with serious gardeners always preferring the more subtle, blending properties of pastels. On the whole I think this a color prejudice and a very unfair one.

I think the acid yellow of forsythias, for example, to be rather unattractive as an abstraction, and yet as a splash of bright paint on the dull canvas of early spring it is thrilling, and who does not rejoice to see it? Some of the colors of azaleas are loud to the point of bizarreness, and yet who would complain about having these colors to light up the woodland shade (except for yellow and orange)?  Only think of daffodils and tulips in their bold primary colors and how delightful they are, and you soon see how unreasonable it is to think chromatic primroses common and pastel pansies always better.

The dark days of winter are a good time to remember not to scorn bold primary colors like reds and yellows, here blazing at their peak in the midsummer garden

So much for the question of whether pastels are innately superior to primary colors in the garden (to which I think the answer is: It depends, but not really). How about the question of whether you have to get your hands dirty to be a gardener. Here I think the answer is quite a lot easier to come by: Yes, you do.

Not everyone is fit and energetic enough to leap about the garden as we used to do long ago, and perhaps a bit of help in the garden with tedious tasks or tasks requiring great stamina is fine as far as it goes, though for myself at this age I can’t conceive of paying anyone to have the fun of my garden.

And other ways of obtaining assistance in the garden – pleading, bossing about, complaining to teenagers and so forth – I have not found to be very often crowned with success. Ahem, perhaps the less said about that the better. Also, few of us can spend as much time in the garden as we would really like. A daytime job in the “real” world, for example, interferes shockingly with the time that would be far better spent in the garden. And too, other people who share your house can be surprisingly critical of the time one spends in the garden, as if it were time somehow taken, unfairly, from them.

The bold colors of spring tulips are a great tonic for the gardener’s color-starved eyes

But in general, if you are the gardener and the garden is yours, then you must get your hands dirty, yes.

If you hire the work done, much of it anyway, you are really more of a garden designer than a gardener. A connection with the soil is critical, and with the labor that creates and sustains the garden as well. This connection keeps us grounded, and not just figuratively. In my own daytime job, I live the ordinary life of a much pressed and harassed businessman (as what person in business is not, these days; times are pretty tough as possibly you will have noticed), and the chance to dig in my own earth like a common farmer, or to tinker with a design for where some new lilies would look especially good, is a way of staying focused on what is real, what is proximate, staying humble and centered, caring for what is important to me and linking myself with chains of beauty to the small world I presently live in.

Gardeners know this strong feeling of connection, satisfaction and wellbeing that comes from contact with their own soil, and what a power of good it does for each of us. It is almost mystical, we have always known and felt. But now, science has proven that it is real and demonstrably chemical as well.

It turns out that working in soil raises your spirits at least partly because you pick up good germs while gardening.  Christopher Lowry, who is a researcher at the University of Colorado, injected some mice with bacteria that live in dirt (Mycobacterium vaccae) and as a result, he found significantly increased levels of serotonin (the biochemical feel-good agent in humans and other animals) in their prefrontal cortex. That’s the official scientific reason gardening makes us feel good, or part of it anyway, and it’s further proof that the garden uses microbiology and crafty evolutionary tactics to manipulate and control the gardener in ways that are subtle and symbiotic.  It is fascinating.

So yes, we must get our hands in the soil, we must keep our feet on the ground, on our own ground, we must get in amongst the plants that we admire and care for and the weeds that we do not care for, all the birds, the insects, the wildlife and the plant life of which we are for a short time the benign curator and the wondering admirer.

This is life and death and art and beauty, after all, and we cannot stand at the back of our studio sipping iced tea and telling the boy with the paint buckets where to apply dabs of color to our landscape, where this plant should go and whether this weed needs lifting right now and whether it really is time after all to divide this clump of peonies.

This mystical connection is a very important part of the interior discipline of gardening: it must have an exterior expression and your own hands must be the operative agent of the interior-ness of it. Being separate from this aspect of gardening is not to garden at all, at least not in the sense I mean. You must live the life of the garden of your mind, you must also be alive and present in the garden out-of-doors —  and your physical activities are the critical thing that connects the two holistically.


David Jensen writes the popular American blog “The Garden Interior,” which chronicles his garden in southern New Jersey. Please visit at You can follow David Jensen on Twitter at @GardenInterior.