by Audrey

Part One

benchAlthough winter seems far away on this March 1st with a feels like temperature of -29 degrees, mentally I have spent much of my time in summer as I work fervently to finish my master’s thesis on the topic of the healing properties of gardening. This reflection leaves me longing even more for spring. As I wait not so patiently, I will share an excerpt of an autoethnography I wrote for an individual study titled “Beautiful, but not Delicate: The Misconception of a Flower” {a ~*~working title~*~}

When we arrive we are amazed at how much everything has grown—including the weeds.

“Look at the sunflowers,” I exclaimed, “they look like they’ve doubled in size!” The sunflowers were the plants I was most excited to have in the garden. Something about their tall size and their big, yellow faces smiling at the sun. To me they were happy giants . Though the primary purpose of the garden was fresh vegetables, I also wanted flowers in our plots. Later I would find the smallest and prettiest of our plants were some of the strongest… It was then I took a wider look at the garden. “We really need to take time to pull the weeds. They are getting out of control,” I said.

Weeding around the plants and targeting the largest was the plan nearly every day as we waited for mulch to be delivered. By the time we got the hay, the weeds were out of control, and emails were sent about the sad state of our plots. Weeds conquered many of our beds, which killed some of our sprouts and prohibited germination of some seeds.

We worked frantically for a week trying to get the weeds under control as best as we could. Our efforts did not completely eliminate them, but no longer were the weeds higher than our plants. Our watering efforts targeted only those plants that we could see and areas we knew we planted seeds. This meant that as the weeds grew, many plants didn’t get the necessary water and died. I was angry at myself  for not making the garden more of a priority. I was already spending the majority of my days out there when I could, but it was not enough. I felt like a failure.

“They don’t cover this in the literature I read,” I said to a friend one day. “All of the articles I read wrote about the benefits to interacting with nature. I’ve always felt that time in nature not only relaxed me, but rejuvenated me. And was excited to see that there were studies that spoke to this, but the focus was on the benefits.” I thought of the section of my literature review in my thesis proposal on interaction with nature:

Interaction with nature can either be passive or active, both of which have mental health benefits. Passive exposure to nature includes viewing nature scenes in pictures or resting in a natural setting. Active exposure to nature includes walking, hiking, running, gardening or farming¹. Documented benefits of passive and active exposure to nature include reduced levels of stress, anxiety, mental fatigue, and other mental illnesses; increased feelings of personal well-being, relaxation, self-esteem. Social benefits include increased feelings of safety, community integration, social interaction, and community cohesion².

This sense of failure brought to mind a comment made my someone who was not supportive of my decision to study the impacts of gardening on survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault, “You say you want to give survivors more control, so you’re going to put them in a garden where there is little control over the weather and growing conditions?” I was angry at the time he said it, I felt as though he was laughing at me and felt he was right about my thesis. Was he right? I asked myself as I looked on the garden with whole plots that seemed to have nothing growing. Was I wrong to think this was the right place to have people who were seeking growth and control in their own lives?

My sense of failure as a novice gardener was compounded by my insecurity as a inexperienced researcher embarking on my first “real” research project. Would a small group of women sharing their experiences as survivors be considered “good” research? I worried about the validity–not an unusual concern for a researcher. Reading works such as Carolyn Ellis’ Ethnographic I helped to put some of my anxieties at ease.  She wrote, “To me, validity means that our work seeks verisimilitude; it evokes in readers a feeling that the experience described is lifelike, believable, and possible. You also can judge validity by whether it helps readers communicate with others different from themselves or offers a way to improve the lives of participants and readers—or even your own.”

Through spending time one-on-one with the other three participants in order to get to know them, and facilitating the first and each subsequent focus group on my own, the Healing Garden became less my research and more our project…The conversations had in the Healing Garden group brought to light the real experiences and feelings of trauma felt by these women and echoed literature I have read on the impacts of trauma on individuals. We spoke of disconnection from ourselves and others, the preoccupation with being safe, the fear of others, the shame, the blame, the guilt.  We discussed our hope that cultivating awareness of our project and the issues of domestic violence and sexual assault would help others understand who we were and our experiences, as well as benefit ourselves, other survivors, and the larger community. My sense of failure diminished throughout the summer as my visits to the garden after our intensive weeding yielded surprising results.

¹Groenwegen, Berg, Vries, & Verhiej, 2006; Maller, Townsend, Pryor, Brown & St. Leger, 2005; Pretty, Peacock, Sellens, & Griffin, 2005
² Dunnet & Qasim, (2000); Groenwegen, et al., 2006; Kaplan, 1973; Kaplan, 1995; Perrins-Margalias, Rugletic, Schepis, Stepanski, & Walsh, 2000; Pretty, et al., 2005; Sempik, 2010; Walizeck, Zajicek, Linberger, 2005


Audrey finished her master’s degree in sociology. Her thesis focused on the benefits of gardening for survivors of domestic violence. She does a pretty good impersonation of Martha from Bobby’s World.
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