My Garden Is My Healing Space
Digging, seeding, planting, and watering nourishes my spirit in surprising ways
Wandering in my garden is how I greet my day. Winter. Summer. Rain or shine. It’s where I go to meet the spirits of my female ancestors in the woods behind the house. It’s where I go to discover what miracle of nature has occurred overnight. It’s where I go to heal. It is part of my process. Didn’t take a meeting to figure it out. Didn’t consult the spiritual books and tweets. Didn’t even call on my Mother spirits to guide me to my healing place.
They already knew what I needed and how to lead me there. By the time I realized what a restorative and healing place my garden was, I was already hooked. And my Mother spirits — I call them my Grandies — were already there. Waiting for me. Ready to lead me to the morning gardening routine that sparks my imagination, stirs my creativity, and prepares me for telling the stories that swirl around me as I stand, physically exhausted and powerful next to the towering Red Queen sunflowers.
Like most women of color in the South, I come from a long line of growers — some of their own volition, some by no will of their own. So many of us treasure memories of our elder women bent over at the waist or full stooping among their patches of earth pulling weeds or picking beetles, harvesting vegetables. I was drawn to gardening by the spirits of those very women: my mother Nellie and her mother Mary and her aunt Elizabeth and her friend Sarah.
After a trickle of water, I see rebirth in a cup of dirt.
Readers may be familiar with my work, but few know that I’ve lived on a Sea Island off the coast of Georgia for three decades. St. Simons Island is only four miles by 12 miles, but that’s more than enough dirt and marshland for me and my garden to offer my soul and spirit succor. After a draining day of writing or an exhausting trip on the book journey, I wander into my garden feeling depleted and a bit unsettled. I see the baby grapefruit cutting I got from a gardening neighbor’s tree, bending over plaintively in the sun. Always vigilant, as gardening has taught me to be, I reach for the hose. As with any precious thing, ignore it for a while and return to find it ruined, missing, cracked, damaged, or eaten up by aphids or crickets.
But after a trickle of water, I see rebirth in a cup of dirt.
A magical transformation has begun. My garden has taken over and as I water every living thing in sight, I am refreshed and revived like my thirsty plants. The dirt, the water, the atmosphere, the intoxicating scent of petrichor, the movement of the Earth under me as I lie on the ground between the rows of collards all contribute to my sense of well-being.
In my garden, I am renewed. There, I don’t care about getting wet and muddied up to my hips, about the ache in my back from turning my compost pile, or the inevitable sunspots on my face that no amount of hat-wearing can prevent. There, I am as happy weeding and hoeing as the redbirds that dart and play in the sprinkler shower nearby. It is the continuity of gardening in my life that keeps the flow of nature moving in the direction of fullness, of reproduction, of creativity, of life.
I’ve gardened in a rolling field in North Carolina, in my front yards and backyards in Maryland, in pots by windows in Florida, and on one windowsill for a few months in Baltimore. The terrain may change, however, the Spirit that flows through the Earth into me stays true. It teaches lessons of taking your own good time, of finding the joy in a seedling, or facing the decay of a compost pile.
Gardeners, farmers, growers have always been uncommonly generous and supportive of my outdoor work. That’s in the nature of gardeners: sharing and supporting. There was my neighbor for 20 years, Gloucester Buchanan, or Mr. Buck, now aged 103, who taught me the deeper meaning of gardening in the soil of the Georgia Sea Islands. “Plant near the woods if you want your greens to taste wild and sweet.” “Oleander sap is pure poison. You go on and have ’em, but I would not have one in my yard.” “Growing your own food makes you smart.” And Cornelia Bailey, the late Geechee-Gullah doyen of Sapelo Island up the coast, taught me to identify and employ herbs and plants on our Sea Islands homes. The famed sweetgrass used to make baskets, rice fanners, and jewelry. “Dog’s Tongue,” not to be confused with “lamb’s tongue.” And the aromatic properties of dried fig leaves tied together and hung on a front porch or in a musty closet.
I suggest gardening as a way of connecting to Mother Earth, to Spirit, to Oshun, and to self on an elemental plane: Dirt. Water. Seed. Sun.
It’s that sense of peace, healing, restoration, and revitalization I’ve discovered in “getting dirt under my fingernails” that I wish to share with the women I call my “Lil School Girls,” (a sorority of extraordinary young women I claim as mine). In nurturing gardeners among the women one, two, and three generations behind me, I feel I’m fulfilling my calling, my joy, and my duty to help them find a healing place as well.
Now, I cannot even recall the first instances of motherly/sister garden advice I shared. It was probably in response to an early question about the origin of the riotous Nature in my novels. This was quickly followed by the shy reader who hung around ’til the end of the book signing to ask why the banks of ferns she imagined greeting her guests at the front door are in real life a weak lime-green and dying. However, what we inevitably ended up discussing was how new growth makes you feel like a superhuman and how we can’t recall what our aunts and grandmothers and neighbors used in the backyard gardens to get such big luscious tomatoes. (For one thing, lime that garden plot in the winter, girl!)
I suggest gardening to most of my “Lil School Girls” as a way of connecting to Mother Earth, to Spirit, to Oshun, and to self on an elemental plane: Dirt. Water. Seed. Sun. I want this for them, my lil sisters. Like Goddesses, powerful and peaceful in their own realms. I want them to go on digging in the dirt, looking for treasures. There we discover a safe place for our souls.