I used to think that only “older” people were interested in gardening. You know, people over forty. But lately, several of my younger clients – men and women in their twenties and thirties – are finding peace and satisfaction in gardening. In fact, one young man inspired me to write this column. In his current apartment, he and his partner have just a tiny patch of back yard, but they are using it to grow all kinds of stuff, from flowers to food. And they’re loving it.

Another client has only a balcony at his apartment, but he has filled it with a bunch of potted plants, including mint and other herbs that he uses in cooking. He told me last week, “I love growing this stuff, it’s really calming and satisfying.”

I, of course, am an avid gardener. As a psychotherapist, I personally find that gardening keeps me grounded and calm, better than almost anything else: I’d put it right up there with counseling as a way to cultivate good mental health.

Even pulling weeds, not my favorite task, calms me down. Maybe it’s because gardening is so tangible, so concrete…so real. There’s nothing theoretical about it: either your plants grow or they don’t, if you have weeds (and we all do), you either pull them or you don’t. There’s nothing vague or abstract about gardening: it’s you and your plants. You water them, put them in places where you think the sun/shade balance is good and you wait.

Yes, gardening does encourage patience!

If you’re like me, you talk to your plants…and listen. I think (imagine?) I hear them tell me, “I’m not happy here, move me over there” or “I’d like a little more water please.” Maybe I’m imagining it all. Doesn’t matter. Plants are alive and maybe I’m tuning into something they’re putting out. Regardless, I talk with my plants and they return the favor.

I started doing some research on the benefits of gardening, and I found quite a few:

  • As your garden thrives, you thrive – The satisfaction of watching something grow is not to be underestimated.
  • Exercise – It’s not the same as going to the gym, but the more you work in the garden, the more (gentle) exercise you get.
  • Vitamin D – Healthy sun exposure (not too much) is good for you. If you’re like me, you wear a hat with a big brim, a thin, cotton long sleeved t-shirt and gardening gloves to prevent sun damage (I don’t like the feeling of sunscreens on my skin, so I’ve found these alternatives).
  • Being outside – You get out of the house/office, into fresh air, sunshine, feeling the wind on your face, hearing the birds and watching the butterflies circle around.
  • Getting your hands in the earth – It’s so calming to dig in the dirt, pull weeds in the dirt, fertilize the dirt and harvest your herbs/food from the dirt.
  • You can grow whatever you want – If you want low-maintenance plants, try cactus, succulents and Native California plants. They’ll give you much satisfaction for very little effort.
  • You don’t need to spend much money – Oh sure, you can buy lots of expensive stuff at fancy nurseries, but many of my plants came from friends and neighbors. If you want to start a garden (or just a few pots in plants), tell your friends who garden and ask them for help and advice. Most gardeners love passing it on and will happily give you seeds, cuttings and plants of your own.
  • A garden can be a place of privacy, rest and peace – Like a mini retreat, you can go to your garden to get away from people, noise, conversation and hang out in peace and quietude.

A garden doesn’t have to be practical. You don’t need to get a return on your “investment” unless you’re committed to growing your own food. As a happy gardener since my first balcony garden – I had a few potted plants – in Manhattan in 1980, here’s my advice: Don’t get too ambitious. Don’t make it another project to do “perfectly”. Let it be fun. Easy. Relaxing.

And if you get a few pretty flowers or delicious tomatoes out of it, that’s fine too.