Common Ground: How Gardens Give Us the Space to Find Comfort, Hope, and Healing

·7 min read

Abhi Arora's world was the color of concrete. For almost five years, he worked 16 hours a day, toiling to get his tech company listed on the NASDAQ. He existed in front of screens, traveling from his home to the train to his office to his home. With every dawn, the cycle repeated and the stress mounted. Even as he realized a dream, bouts of anxiety brought on restlessness and worry. Then, in 2019, he had a serious panic attack.

As he started his long recovery process, Arora's mind wandered to a gardening class he'd taken almost a decade earlier. Taught by his friend, Rishi Kumar, Arora had felt so relaxed, just so happy, after only a few hours among the plants in Kumar's yard, he recalls. He decided to visit that garden again, and the moment he walked in, his world exploded into colors and sounds and smells from the kaleidoscope of plants.

Before, Arora had been experiencing life as though looking through a camera, he says, present but not in his body, aware but not conscious. There, in Kumar's garden, he was like Dorothy walking from sepia to color. He was himself again. "I was pulled out of stress and into that moment," Arora says. "Somehow all the things that I was thinking about were kind of wiped out for a few minutes, or they were pushed to the back, and I felt like I'm here."

Angela Doss

Healing Gardens for Mind and Body

Similarly, as many of us sought refuge from the chaos of the last year, gardens increasingly became sanctuaries for comfort and peace, and gardening became a vehicle for healing. Searching for a salve to the upending of our lives, the loss of routine, of self-identity, of security, we all seemed to find our way back to the soil. And deep in the dirt, we discovered the resilience we needed to endure.

For Kumar, this pandemic-inspired infusion of new garden enthusiasts was the culmination of a trend he spotted a decade ago, right around when he met Arora. Back then, he noticed a handful of his students weren't as interested in learning to garden as just being in a garden. Sure, they'd dutifully listen as he explained composting or planting, but they really just craved time on the grounds.

Most people believed nature existed "out there," Kumar realized, somewhere that humans weren't. They thought they had to travel far from a city center, far from their homes, to experience the curative power of plants and sun. "It's a very common thing in the gardening and nature community that people go to gardens and people tend their own gardens to get well," he says. "And my experience was that people were coming into our gardens looking for and getting that same healing."

After Arora's experience, an idea crystallized between the partners. Using Kumar's horticultural prowess and Arora's tech knowledge, they started Healing Gardens, an online marketplace where gardeners list their plots for short-term rent. Users sign up to use the space as they see fit, while gardeners earn income and share the living works of art they've created. In its first year, the Healing Gardens catalog has grown to include more than two dozen spaces with many more in the pipeline, Arora says.

Moonwater Farm, which lists on Healing Gardens, was an "encore career" for co-creator Kathleen Blakistone. She and her partner purchased an acreage in Compton, just outside Los Angeles, with designs on building an aquaponic farm, but switched gears when they were approached by two residents asking to board their horses in the backyard.

It was more important to grow people than lettuce.

—Kathleen blakistone, Moonwater Farm

After agreeing, Blakistone was immersed in black cowboy culture and through their programming, saw her grounds come alive not as a space for crops, but for the neighborhood. "That was my realization, that it was more important to grow people than lettuce," she says.

Since then, Moonwater Farm has bloomed into a land-based learning hub complete with a food forest, a pond, and a menagerie of dairy and fiber goats, chickens, and rabbits. They also exhibit art on their grounds and host a calendar of workshops and discussions around restorative land practices. Plus, their summer farm camp shows school-age children the power of agriculture.

Courtesy of Moonwater Farms

Although education remains the heart of what happens at Moonwater Farm, Blakistone knows their gardens are also an important place for community members to relax and heal. After the racial justice movements of last summer, she offered her Black, indigenous, and Latinx neighbors free use of the space for restoration and self-care.

"Having safe spaces for our BIPOC citizens (black, indigenous, people of color) to gather and express themselves in ways that they get to control the narrative and the storytelling are too rare," Blakistone says. "So we're trying to be the container that allows for neighbors to come in and share their story."

As the election campaigns raged last fall, Makeda Cheatom noted a similar need for San Diego residents and posted the WorldBeat Cultural Center's outdoor space on Healing Gardens. "To know nature is to know nurture," she says.

To know nature is to know nurture.

—Makeda CHeatom, Worldbeat Cultural Center

Cheatom founded the WorldBeat Cultural Center in 1989 as a venue for classes, events, and exhibitions on global cultures but expanded into gardens when she noticed the young people visiting her center were "completely disconnected" from the outdoors. "They were afraid of nature, and we're teaching them not to be," Cheatom says. "Really, we're showing them a life beyond themselves. We're showing them that the soil is alive and the water is alive and that they can boost their energy, rejuvenate themselves with Mother Earth."

As the pandemic marched across the globe, Cheatom saw that adults needed to reconnect with the earth as well, that they needed places to reboot and recharge, too. She's now planning to move part of the children's garden to its own space, where younger visitors can yell and shout and be kids, she says, and reinvest in the sanctity of their Healing Peace Garden, which can be used for yoga, Reiki, and relaxing.

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Post-Pandemic Life Still Needs Gardens

The coronavirus pandemic might have been an unwelcome invitation to explore and dissect most every aspect of our lives, but it was also an opportunity to reflect on what we want our legacy to be and to take stock of whether we're living in a way that ensures it. The disruption of daily life woke us up from a kind of buffering. It revealed how sensory deprived we truly were, how connecting had been one computer screen at a time, how much living and dying was determined by an Outlook calendar. And it called us outside.

In the soil, we sought stability born from a truth that goes back millennia: What we give the earth, it returns to us in kind. Water. Sun. Tend. Life. As chaos rages, humans depend on routine, naturally finding comfort in the cycles of a day, of a season, of a year. When our old, familiar schedules evaporated, we filled the loss with new routines, the loss of ritual with new rituals. We went to our gardens. Water. Sun. Tend. Life. In plants' natural resilience, we found a little for ourselves. We rediscovered the nurture in nature. Water. Sun. Tend. Life.

For many people across the globe, focusing on our backyards has reawakened a culture of caring that we can lean on to heal from the strife of this past year. Just as we went to the earth seeking peace for our individual souls, we can go there to mend the collective. And as we build back better, we can use our gardens, our soil, and our spirit to find common ground. With vaccines going into more arms every day, our lives are already speeding up again and our calendars are beginning to fill up fast. But even as we go back to "normal," there will still be pain, still be loss, still be joy in simpler things. Thankfully, there will still be gardens, too.