Gardening Therapy



Gardening therapy.  I know that for many of my readers, I don’t need to say any more than those two words. You know just what I’m talking about. But I’ll elaborate anyway.

When we moved to Michigan, there were no gardens in the yard of our  house. But Priscilla brought some perennials from Massachusetts, where she’d had border gardens by the house and walkways. These perennials had been Mother’s Day and birthday presents from me in earlier years, so she’d wanted to keep them. She cleared a small plot on one edge of the yard and planted them so that they could settle into their new home as we were settling into ours.

When a young woman in our church heard about this, she rounded up all the other gardeners in the congregation to donate cuttings from their own perennials.  Priscilla had to enlarge the patch significantly to accommodate all these kind gifts. In the years that followed, as she divided and transplanted these flowers, and as she acquired more, eventually she expanded the gardens over the entire perimeter of our property.

When she came down with ALS, she was no longer able to care for her flowers as she wanted to. About a year into the disease, she was showing some visiting friends around and apologized for the state they were in. “Oh sure,” one of them said, “now the place just looks like a well-kept yard, instead of a botanical garden.” But as the disease progressed and the time and effort required for caregiving increased, even though (as I’ve shared in earlier posts) many people came and helped us with the gardens, inevitably they declined further. When the snow melted this past spring, I discovered that dead stalks and crumpled brown leaves were overflowing from all the gardens onto the lawn.

“I’ve got to do something about this,” I told myself, “if only so I can mow the grass when it starts growing.” Even though I was still recovering from exhaustion, I resolved to do at least a little bit each day. At first I could put in barely an hour of gardening before I had to go back inside and sleep for two or three hours. But eventually I reached a couple of milestones. The boundary between the lawn and gardens became distinct once again as I finished clearing out all the dead vegetation. And I became able to garden for nearly as long as I’d have to sleep afterwards.

I realized that the moderate exercise and fresh air were doing wonders for the restoration of my health and strength. “This is saving my life,” I concluded gratefully. As I started making good progress on the next phase of the gardens’ own recuperation, digging out some serious weed infestations, gardening time continued to become proportionately greater than rest time.

But the benefits for me weren’t just physical. As the weather warmed up and the flowers came into bloom, I realized that Priscilla had incorporated various plants in such a way that just as one flower began to fade, another would burst open. “It’s like a slow-motion fireworks display,” I said admiringly. At one point in the spring, when the irises were out in all their glory in both the front and back of the house, I realized that I was basically living right in the middle of a giant flower garden—and that the beauty was feeding my soul. I posted pictures of the blossoms on Facebook so that others could enjoy them as well (and so I could get help identifying unfamiliar ones). A friend commented, “I’ll bet each new flower that opens is like another love letter from Priscilla.” She was absolutely right.

And a bit later, I realized that the gardens were therapy not just for my body and soul, but also for my spirit.

I noticed that the flowers were pursuing a wonderful thematic color progression. After the pastels of the crocuses and daffodils of early spring, the garden blossoms settled down into the blue-purple area of the spectrum. Beginning with the clear blue of Virginia bluebells, Siberian squill, and Jacob’s Ladder, they edged over into purple with grape hyacinths, mountain bluets, periwinkle, and St. Lucy’s flowers (spiderwort). This purple then moved towards red in a couple of ways. It might fade into violet (lilacs, irises) which would give way to pink (peonies, columbine, coral bells, harebells). Or a reddish-purple flower would appear (allium) as a harbinger of the fully red ones that were to follow (Tokyo coral bell, bee balm). I knew that in late summer there would be brilliant scarlet crocosmia as a kind of exclamation point.

All throughout this process there were white accents, beginning with snow drops at the end of winter, then hyacinths in early spring, followed by Spanish bluebells, white bleeding hearts, lily of the valley, white iris, and penstemon. Shrubs whose blossoming branches swayed above the gardens—dogwood, mock orange, Japanese privet—also provided a white accent for the colorful flowers below. Sometimes the chromatic progression would even backtrack a little bit, as when solid blue bellflowers appeared after the garden had seemed to move on to purple, so that the colors moved back and forth within the chosen area of the spectrum in a dance-like way.

It dawned on me that all of this would best be appreciated by a viewer who was able to see the whole property at once, over a long period of time, if they could experience that time as if it were no time at all.  Someone like God, in other words. That was when I realized that God was the real intended audience for all of Priscilla’s beautiful landscaping. I wasn’t just watching flowers open. I was witnessing, and sharing in, an act of worship.

Once the gardens have run their full cycle, I hope to post a slide show illustrating their whole color progression. Stay tuned! (Update: here’s the link.)

The first peonies that bloom are light pink. But then these darker ones appear, sliding towards red as a hint of what's to come. The purple smoke bush in the background reminds us where we're coming from.
The first peonies that bloom are light pink. But then these darker ones appear, sliding towards red as a hint of what’s to come. The purple smoke bush in the background reminds us where on the color spectrum we’re  coming from.

Author: endlessmercies

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister and served local churches as a pastor for nearly twenty years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School. Dr. Smith answers questions about the Bible, particularly those that arise from the use of his study guides, at

5 thoughts on “Gardening Therapy”

  1. I love this post. I have 2 friends who love to garden- literally be in their garden working. One is a therapist, an extremely bright introvert who loves creating in her beautiful yard and her family’s beach house garden at Long Beach Island. I’ve recently visited her and got the tour of both gardens in July. For her, the gardening is a natural part of her- an extension of her mom’s love of gardening, and her own enjoyment of seeing results- beautiful results- of tending, cultivating, moving, thinning, etc. She loves the quiet, the not talking, the time to rethink her conversations of the week. I’ve learned so much from her love of plants!!

    The second friend lives on Martha’s Vineyard. She has had professional help in establishing her garden but now prefers to do her own weeding, dead heading, trimming back, etc.. What I love about hers is the combination of the perimeter garden combined with a vegetable garden, a blueberry grove, beach plum trees, a kitchen herb garden, and the hill garden- the sections all working together without competing, and serving the whole.

    I am always eager to work with my friends in their gardens as my landlord is somewhat averse to his garden- such as it is- expanding. As I’ve always rented, I love making window boxes and large pots of flowers for porches and decks. Every year it’s s favorite activity.

    Some of my church members are aging, I help several in yard projects. It’s great to spend time that way. But in all of my adventures I never have thought about God’s viewing the work from above. The roof deck of my friends on the Vineyard gives me that glorious aspect and agree the heart of the gardener ‘s intent can best be viewed that way. I wish my Vineyard friends had a worshipping heart.

    Chris it makes me glad you now share the intricacies of gardening with your artist wife!!! And it has healed you.


    1. Thanks so much for sharing your own stories of “gardening therapy”! And you’re right, gardening has been a healing experience that has also brought me even closer to Priscilla by helping me appreciate afresh her eye for beauty and color and her heart of devotion to God.


  2. What joy to see all the colors emerging one by one. As you listed them it felt like reading the names of friends. My own memories of blooms I have now or have enjoyed in another garden.
    I’ve often experienced times of heart healing among my flowers. It seems as if the Lord reveals new truths to me there.
    I pray that you will find sweet memories and the promises of God among the plants you tend.
    Thank you for such a lovely post. It was a bright spot in my day.
    Blessings ~ Deon


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