How-To Ideas

Witnessing the Spirit of the Garden


We are often focused on the immediate and seemingly endless tasks of caring for our gardens: pulling weeds, mulching, watering, and deadheading. But, have you ever wondered, “Why does this garden draw me in? How does this garden get me to spend my time here?” Of course, every individual will have unique and personal answers to these questions.

A Hillsborough gardener, pulling weeds from around a plant, feels that the plant is saying “thank you,” and she finds herself responding “thank you.” Gardening gives her a feeling of gratitude for the connection it provides to her late mother and grandmother, both of who were gardeners.

Another gardener, when observing the new, elongated shoots of spruce, fir, and pine in spring, feels a sense of well-being wash over him. For him, caring is reciprocal. He cares for their needs, and they respond, bringing him a peaceful sense that all is well.

A third gardener, when faced with what to do about a young tree growing too close to the foundation of her home, found herself asking forgiveness from the plant, which had volunteered to grow there, when she finally decided that it had to be cut down.

When people talk about their gardens, they often use such words and phrases as gratitude, life itself, losing all sense of time, feelings of utter contentment though exhaustion, peacefulness, and enjoyment. But, beyond the personal history and life experiences of individual gardeners, could there be another dimension to the garden that beckons us? Does the garden have a spiritual dynamic that calls out to us? Perhaps we love to garden because we tap into this dimension without being fully aware of it.

Asked differently, is it possible—with a more mindful intent—to submit deeply to the garden and witness its spirit?

The Japanese concept of “forest bathing” might offer some direction. Forest bathing is an activity in which people, after divesting themselves from modern distractions, wander with no particular destination and report experiencing a oneness with the forest and a loss of the subject/object perspective, resulting in a feeling of deep fulfillment. Could a similar technique be used to access a deeper connection to our gardens? Perhaps “garden bathing”?

For those curious and willing to try something new, here are a few suggestions.

First, if you are game, it is helpful (maybe even necessary) to temporarily rid yourself from the troubles of your life and the world. Not an easy task! Disconnect from your cell phone, and purge yourself of cable news and the static of daily life for as long as possible.

Second, practice being still, physically and mentally. Do this several times a day, in preparation.

Next, try to be like a wild animal. What I mean by this is focusing on your senses, especially ones you might typically overlook. Take in the different smells of the earth and plants around you, notice the sounds of a breeze passing through the leaves on trees in the garden or the hum of an insect.

Try looking at the plantings in the garden as shapes, colors, and textures without the distracting filters of evaluating what needs to be done, the identification of a plant, or a change that could improve the design. If you are fortunate, the spirit of the garden will become clear to you when you are not particularly looking for it. You can prepare yourself with these suggestions, but you cannot actively seek it; for that intention itself will prevent the witnessing of the spirit of the garden. Let me know how it goes.

John Monroe was the owner of Architectural Trees in Bahama, NC, for many years. Now, semi-retired, his focus is on annuals for the spring and summer seasons. You can contact him at

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