NZ Life & Leisure
Of all the creative endeavours I’ve had a crack at in my life, from pottery to guitar playing, gardening is the only one that has stuck. I still put off jobs I don’t want to do — pruning vicious roses, weeding paths — but as soon as I get going, it opens the floodgates for a rush of feelgood dopamine. This pattern of mental reward and reinforcement reminds me how much I enjoy working in my garden, making me more likely to do it again. Hobbies make us feel good on multiple fronts, according to neuroscience professor Ciara McCabe of the University of Reading, because they provide “a sense of purpose, physical activity, a shared interest, a route to belonging” as well as being a useful non-medical intervention for depressive anhedonia — the loss of interest in activities that ordinarily bring pleasure. “Part of the allure of a garden lies in the truth that we are forever learning, and do not have things all our own way,” wrote 1960s South Island gardening columnist Cicely Wylie, whose monthly Let’s Do Some Gardening dispatches appeared between Graham Kerr’s recipes and the practical patterns in New Zealand Woman magazine. At the age of four, Cicely demanded a garden plot where, according to her biography, “lovingly, she planted an assortment of hen feathers and in vain waited for her first crop — of chickens”. Sixty years later, in her memoir A Garden at My Door, she described gardening as “compensation for growing older, for as long as we have strength to pull a weed, or sow a seed, there is no need for boredom or loneliness. We are never too old to marvel at the opening of a flower.” We are never too old — or too young — to marvel at the names of those flowers, either. As a toddler, my elder son Lucas was my constant companion in the garden, shadowing my every movement, often in reverse. (I’d plant a seedling; he’d pull it out.) I taught him so many plant names that, as a preschooler, he was nearly as fluent in botanical Latin as English. On a family visit to Ōhinetahi, I couldn’t tell who was more impressed — me or Sir Miles Warren’s head gardener — when, at two and a half, Lucas tottered into a border of perennial coneflowers and exclaimed, ‘ Echinacea purpurea!’
Learning a new language, reading, meditating, exercising: in a garden, you can do all these brain-building activities at once.