Back to the Garden

“We are stardust, we are golden…
and we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.”
Joni Mitchell

As icy winds howl outside, I feel as if a part of my soul has died. Spring is a distant dream … but the annual Spring Flower and Garden Show at the RI Convention Center is coming, and wandering through the impeccably created indoor gardens, my will to live can be restored. The scents from the earth and flowers brought into transform the indoor space are like a balm to the chapped air and depression of winter. And I’m not the only one who feels this way. Maury Ryan, director of the Spring Flower and Garden Show observes: “I take great pleasure in witnessing concrete [at the RI Convention Center] turn into original grass creations with trees, plenty of mulch, flowers and more. Ponds, trees, flowers and their aromas, chickens (if any) and other farm animals (sometimes) create an enjoyable atmosphere.” And provide a much-needed break from winter’s chill.

Gardens have a way of working magic on people. In fact, their effect upon us is so profound that even the often cynical medical world has found the subject worth delving into.

In the 1930s, Dr. Edward Bach abandoned a very lucrative medical practice in London and took to the fields and woods, convinced that the illnesses of man were not due solely to physical causes but, to a far greater degree, by a disturbed state of mind. His flower remedies were developed to heal by helping people recover their inner desire for health. These elixirs proved so effective that they are still sold and distributed worldwide.

Practitioners who use plants in healing claim that there is an aura and energy that gives botanicals their curative powers. In fact, the mere sight of growing greenery can be enough to trigger our regenerative powers. A medical study followed two groups of patients recovering from surgery. One group had views of a lush landscape, while the other could see only brick walls. The group exposed to nature had significantly faster healing with fewer complications and needed less pain medication. Biologist Edward O. Wilson, a research professor emeritus at Harvard University, has a word for this phenomena: biophilia. Humans are reflexively drawn to connect with other living, growing things; we need to feel part of the web of life.

Maury Ryan agrees. “I continuously observe in myself and others, the beneficial health effects – both mental and physical — of gardening. Working in the dirt is a relaxing and beautiful experience.”

Auras and energies aside, there are chemical properties in soil that take it from the level of holistic healing and into the arena of scientific fact.

Mycobacterium Vaccae
This microbe is serious medicine. Research has found that this bacteria common to garden dirt can alleviate symptoms of psoriasis, allergies, asthma and even depression by raising serotonin and norepinephrine levels in the brain with an effect similar to that of pharmaceutical antidepressants. These neurotransmitters are responsible for our sense of well-being and a strong immune system.

We keep hearing about cortisol, “the stress hormone,” in ads for pharmaceuticals and diet supplements. Why? Because this chemical by-product of stress is responsible for problems ranging from immune function and heart disease to weight gain. A Dutch study found that test subjects who gardened for 30 minutes after a stressful task not only reported better moods than their non-gardening counterparts … they also had measurably lower cortisol levels.

A 16-year study in Australia followed nearly 3,000 adults and assessed the impact of lifestyle on dementia. Daily gardening was found to be the single most significant risk reduction for dementia, showing a 36% decrease in Alzheimer’s development. Why? Scientists don’t really know. But when I conducted my own survey among a group of seniors in Providence, the residents showed no hesitation in their own conclusion- “It makes me feel like I’m DOING something.”


People need to do something, to see real results. It is a life-affirming experience to plant a seed and watch it change and grow before your eyes. You provide a few simple things — the right soil, adequate water and sunshine — and this tiny pellet uncurls itself from the dirt and becomes a vibrant plant that takes root and thrives — another everyday miracle of life on planet Earth.

We forget that we are part of that life, that we need the right soil, fresh water and the sun. We spend weeks, months, even years at a time walking on rugs, concrete and roads. We work in boxes with artificial light and recirculated stale air. Sometimes I wonder if our lifestyles have caused a part of our collective soul to die, and if the violence and hatred that grows around us is something bred out of emptiness. We are so far from the garden.

But in our backyards, in green houses and our balcony herb and garden plots, we are connected to the earth, to this giant orb that holds us as we spin through the universe. In nature, we can find union with the soil and feel the grit of earth between our fingers, squirming with pungent life.

For all of our technology we are still human. We may forget that, but when we are hurt and lost and neither money nor medicine seems to help us, the garden is a home we can return to where all are welcomed.

The Roger Williams Park Zoo Botanical Center features a volunteer program for both avid gardeners and those who would love to learn. For more information, visit Or to get your mid-winter vegetation fix, head to the Rhode Island Spring Garden and Flower Show. It takes place this year at the Rhode Island Convention Center from February 18 – 21, and this year’s Spring Fling theme promises to delight all your senses (

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