Healing as tending a garden

Image credit: © 2012 Judy Robinson-Cox, from Flickr | used via CC-BY-ND licensing


There is a paradox embedded in the healing process. It is the hardest work I’ve ever done, AND there’s absolutely nothing I can do that will make it happen.

That sounds like a contradiction, but it’s actually much like growing a garden.

Plants grow and produce their fruit (or vegetables or flowers) in their own time in response to the conditions they find themselves in. As a gardener, I have to wait (as patiently as I can) for each bud or blossom to unfurl when it is ready. I can’t speed up the growing process no matter how hard I work.

On the other hand, without the hard work of weeding, watering, protecting, and tending the plants, the chances that I will have a successful harvest decrease dramatically. The hard work is crucial to the process, AND no amount of hard work can ever force the harvest to happen on my timing.

When I think of my inner life as a garden to be tended and nurtured, there are many close analogies to the gardening process that can help me stay on track with the hard work I need to be doing while at the same time accepting that the outcome is out of my control.

Digging deep to prepare the ground

The first step in getting my garden going each year is digging in the soil to prepare the ground for what’s coming. This involves working last year’s decaying debris down into the ground, aerating the soil, and removing any weeds. It might also involve working some compost or manure into the soil to enrich it.

I find this step to be messy, back-aching work, but the more I do this to make sure the ground is prepared to support and nourish the plants that are coming, the better harvest I can hope for.

In my inner life, this is the work of digging deep into old wounds to allow myself to release pent-up pain and anger. It’s messy. It makes my heart ache. It involves tears and venting anger and feeling all of those emotions that I’ve tried to stuff down and ignore.

It’s hard, unpleasant work, but I do it anyway because it prepares the ground of my heart and soul for the new growth of healing in its time.

Planting the seeds for new growth

Once the ground is ready, I can start planting the seeds (or seedlings) that will become my garden. It involves choosing what I want to try to grow that season and getting them in the ground.

This means more digging, of course, but now it’s a bit easier since I’ve already loosened the soil. This is a hopeful step after the hard work of preparing the ground as I start imagining what’s to come with the harvest later in the season.

In my inner life, this corresponds to choosing areas that I want to focus on for healing. Now that I’ve cleared out some of the old baggage, I can see more clearly where I need to make changes, let go, forgive, or create new patterns.

Choosing the areas where I need to focus on healing allows me to use my resources most effectively in moving in that direction. This, for me, is often the first step out of a place of despair as I make the choice to commit to nurturing healing in select areas of my life.

Watering the garden

As soon as the new plants (or seeds) are in the ground, it’s time to start watering—a process that continues throughout the growing process. Sometimes we get lucky and there is enough rain to keep the plants adequately watered. More often, there are at least some times in the season when we need to add water to ground that has become dry.

In my inner life, I think of this watering as giving my healing process the attention it needs. Sometimes it is going to be at the forefront of my mind, and I find myself giving it attention automatically. Other times, it’s easy for the ground to get dry as my attention is drawn away on other things.

Committing to keeping my attention on the healing process is akin to keeping a close eye on the moisture level in the soil to make sure the growing plants are getting the water they need to survive and grow.

Feeding the plants

Plants need more than water to grow. The nitrogen and other nutrients that the plants need come from the soil. While I may mix in compost or other nutrient-rich materials when I’m preparing the ground to feed my plants throughout the season, keeping the plants fed through ongoing improvements to the soil can be helpful throughout the growing process.

In my inner life, these are the regular practices that feed and enrich my mind, heart, and soul on a regular basis. This may mean reading books and articles that help me expand my thinking, spending time in prayer or meditation, doing yoga or other physical exercise, walking outdoors, getting enough rest, spending time with supportive friends, or other practices that nourish me and feed the healing that is growing inside me.

Weeding the garden

As I water and feed and tend my garden, it is inevitable that weeds will spring up to compete with the new plants for the moisture and nutrients in this lovely, prepared soil. Much of the ongoing hard work of gardening is watching for these weeds and pulling them to keep the ground clear for the plants I want.

This means learning to differentiate between that which is helpful and desirable and that which is not, and that’s not always easy, especially in the early stages.

In my inner life, this means learning to pay attention to my thoughts, patterns, and regular input (what let into my life by who and what I pay attention to) to decide what gets to stay and what needs to be uprooted.

When I identify those things that are detracting from my growth, it also means finding the courage and strength to remove them. This often leads to uprooting long-held beliefs, thought patterns, relational patterns, or habits that are no longer serving me.

Just like weeding my garden, it often feels like a never-ending process!

Protecting the new growth

Throughout the process of growing my garden, I also need to be on the lookout for the ways I need to protect the new growth that I am nurturing. This may mean building a fence to keep the rabbits from eating my plants, picking off harmful insects, adding mulch to keep the moisture in the ground, covering the plants in case of frost, or placing edging around the perimeter to keep the grass from moving in.

In my healing process, I must do similar work in setting boundaries to protect myself from unhelpful behavior (or words) from others, taking care in choosing what environments I expose myself to during this time, and engaging in good self-care practices (rest, exercise, nutrition) to keep the fragile new growth and ripening fruit from being damaged before it is ready.

Savoring the harvest

Eventually there comes a time when the harvest is ready. As I continue to do the hard work throughout the season of weeding, watering, feeding, tending, I easily get frustrated by the slowness of the growth. I want the fruit of my labor right away!

And yet, the plants grow according to their own timing. Sometimes, one kind of plant may just not thrive in my garden. Other times I may discover that a plant that I’ve been nurturing is not what I had anticipated. (Maybe that bell pepper plant turned out to actually be a jalapeno pepper plant!)

But they do grow, and when I step back from my impatience, I can see the miracle of these plants growing their way into being through the grace of the Divine Creator. My hard work has done what it can to assist their natural process, but the growth comes from something beyond anything I can control.

My healing has always been the same. My hard work is necessary to create the optimal conditions for that healing to happen, but the harvest of healing is one that grows into being through grace that is outside of my control.

Over time as I keep at the work, I suddenly notice that new growth blossoming, new fruit ripening, and old hurts melting away.

As I’ve lived into this idea that healing is much like gardening, I’ve found more and more comfort and inspiration in approaching my own healing work in this way. It has allowed me to live into this paradox more gracefully—staying simultaneously committed to the hard work and to accepting that the outcome is out of my control.

Questions to ponder

As you consider healing that has taken place (or is taking place) in your life, how well does this gardening metaphor fit your experience?

Does thinking of it this way help to reconcile the paradox between the hard work necessary and the uncontrollable nature of the outcome?

What gardening actions might your healing process benefit from today? Do you need more watering? Feeding? Tending? Protecting? Digging? Planting? What might that look like for you?


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3 thoughts on “Healing as tending a garden

  • May 12, 2016 at 11:48 pm
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    “As I continue to do the hard work throughout the season of weeding, watering, feeding, tending, I easily get frustrated by the slowness of the growth. I want the fruit of my labor right away!” Boy, can I relate to that! I’ve been working on healing the physical damage and side effects of alcohol abuse. I take naturalistic supplements and want so much to see improvement, yet my body is healing in it’s own time. At the same time, I see the addictive patterns that are still in other places in my life, such as food choices, and smoking. I have learned a great deal about patience. You are so right, it is very much akin to working a garden. Thank you for the excellent comments and observations, you are very kind to share your personal experiences in a way that I can relate to.

    thank you very much Kenetha!

    • May 13, 2016 at 5:31 pm
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      Thank you so much for commenting, Steve. I’m glad this analogy is helpful for you too. It sounds like you are doing very good (and very hard work), and I’m sure it can be frustrating not to see results faster. I hope the harvest is rich and plentiful for you when it does come, though.
      Thanks for letting me know I’m not alone in my struggles to be patient. :) Blessings!

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