Mindfulness in the garden

Mindfulness in the garden can take on many forms that lead to increased mental and emotional well-being.

A watering can watering plants.
Photo: Pexels/Karolina Grabowska.

With the onset of summer upon us, many people will return to the garden as a way to not only create beautiful landscapes, grow their own organic fruits and vegetables or to get some exercise, but to find balance and connect to their peace. Whether engaging in established restorative practices, such as mindful breathing and mindful eating while in the garden, the act of simply working in the garden as a form of mindful movement can anchor us in the here and now to relieve stress in the moment and beyond. Gardening or practicing other forms of mindfulness while in the garden will take some intentionality and practice, but the emotional health and benefits may be well worth it.

The physical benefits of any aerobic activity such as gardening are well established. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) classifies gardening when done continuously as either a moderate or vigorous intensity form of exercise. Gardening engages the body in aerobic activities such as digging, shoveling, hauling, pulling, bending and kneeling. According to a 2018 article published by Michigan State University Extension, activities such as raking, shoveling and pushing a wheel barrel not only help burn calories, but can also strengthen our bones and muscles. Yet, most have never considered the positive impact that these physical activities that are intrinsic to gardening have on our minds. It is difficult to think of little else while connected to the earth digging, packing and hauling dirt, the earth itself. Gardening is an immersive exercise and as a form of mindful movement can bring about a greater connection between your mind, body, and spirit.

In addition to gardening as a form of mindful movement, mindful activities can be taken into the garden to practice alone or in a group. Intentionally using breath as an anchor is an evidence-based practice that has established benefits for emotional health and well-being. This practice requires very little to carry-out, which makes it convenient to take outdoors. It can be done while sitting or lying on a mat or bench in the garden, with your eyes open or closed, with or without the use of a recorded guide, such as Mindfulness for Better Living guided meditations or other Michigan State University Extension Mindfulness for Better Living resources. Breath is very easy to connect to because it is always with us and the changes are easy to notice. It is also a natural tranquilizer that calms and settles the mind, as well as relaxes the diaphragm and gastrointestinal system.

For teachers, 4-H leaders and others who work with youth developing school-based gardens, there are breathing practices that youth can engage in alone or in a group. Being mindful starts with noticing and then shifting one’s focus to something else in one’s surroundings and out of stressful thoughts in the mind. While in the garden, ask youth to seek five things to see, four things to feel, three things to hear, two things to smell and one thing to taste.  This five sense exercise or “5, 4, 3, 2, 1 exercise” is a widely used mindfulness activity for grounding, which is firmly casting an emotional and mental anchor in the present moment to help us center ourselves when we are experiencing stress.

Taking this grounding activity into the garden with youth can create a unique opportunity for them to anchor themselves in nature by noticing things like the sky, feeling things like leaves, hearing things like chirping birds, smelling natural aromas, such as jasmine or rose from plants, or tasting things that the youth themselves have grown in the garden. For an added benefit, teachers can ask the youth to attend to the one thing that they felt anchored them the most during the exercise and hold their attention to that for as long as they can. As a group exercise following the practice, youth can share with others, perhaps in a circle the things that engaged their five senses and see who else sensed the same things that they did.

In addition to breathing and grounding activities to practice in the garden, mindful eating can also be done with things that have been grown right in one’s garden. This can be a uniquely satisfying activity for youth and adults to experience the satisfaction of eating foods that they themselves have toiled for, nurtured, and harvested. For this activity, plan to have freshly harvested fruits and vegetables cleaned and ready for consumption. Participants can sit in a circle or alone and chart how the item felt in their hands, what colors they noticed and the smell and aroma of the item while holding it up to their noses before placing it in their mouths. Once it is in the mouth, participants can notice the texture while moving it around and savoring the flavor by chewing thoroughly and slowly.

There is so much to savor and enjoy during the brief time that we experience summer. Mindfulness that can be carried out in the garden or through gardening itself is multifaceted and offers a variety of ways for people to find their own way into the practice. Communing with nature is a natural way restore the mind, body and soul.

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