As a freelance writer, sometimes I forget to leave the house, and I had been cooped up for 48 hours when I stepped out into my backyard to try working outside. Still, under the open sky, I hunched over my laptop screen, mindlessly clicking back and forth between a dozen tabs. A bookkeeping platform reminded me in scarlet letters of past-due checks owed to me. Five or six different articles blared a melange of terrible news. The all-hours dread buffet of Twitter rolled by.
And there it was, staring back at me: one conspicuously empty Google doc. A barren page, where 2,000 words about the new and dreadful abortion restrictions in my home state of Georgia eventually needed to be written. In their place, a cursor blinked indifferently. I closed my eyes.
When I reopened them, my gaze landed upon my Sungold tomato plant. Since I’d tucked it into a large plastic pot earlier in the spring, the plant had grown about as tall as me, and had only just begun yielding a few golden blooms. But today, seemingly out of nowhere, it had borne fruit. Noticing the tight cluster of three tiny, taut green globes for the very first time, I was knocked over with joy. I tweeted a picture with a semi-sarcastic joke. Then, I actually did shed a tear.
My tiny Atlanta backyard is just a narrow plot, not some verdant, perfumed oasis to which I escape in search of precious writerly inspiration. It doesn’t have grass, just brown mulch that sometimes stabs the bottoms of my bare feet. But it has enough nature to put me in the reverie Samuel Taylor Coleridge described as “silent with swimming sense”: Two narrow raised beds and a mismatched yard-sale-like gathering of pots hold fragrant sage, basil, and fennel plants. Gardenias, geraniums, and butterfly bush bloom for pollinators. Nasturtiums, tomatillos, a small lemon tree, purple teepee beans, radishes, and strawberries yield hopes for salads, sauces, pies.
And then, of course there are my tomatoes. I think about them every single day. In April, when I planted four scrawny seedlings, no more than 3 or 4 inches tall, it was difficult to imagine they’d ever be mature enough to actually feed me. A friend pointed out that their names sounded like names of lipstick shades: Indigo Rose, Cherokee Purple, Sungold, Black Cherry.
My morning routine began to include a perimeter check around the small raised bed and containers that house them. Then, I found myself checking multiple times a day: assessing their height, inspecting their tiny yellow buds, searching for signs of life. It felt like waiting for a love letter: tortuous, but in a good way.
It’s perhaps preposterous to claim intimacy between myself and a plant. I joke that my plants are “my sons,” “my co-workers,” “my therapy animals,” but it’s not entirely untrue. In any profession where one’s income is based solely on creative labor, exhaustion and burnout can come quickly and without warning — a pretty risky occupational hazard, considering that my ability to pay my bills is directly linked to my quantity of output. I’ll cling to anything that makes me feel grounded.
As well as physical company, my plants also give me access to like-minded humans. I now know that there are fewer places on the internet more wholesome and pure than Garden Twitter. (Just ask its newest inductee, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.) There, I find myself sharing updates with fellow plant lovers, and in turn asking for progress reports on their own gardens. Human connection on a day-to-day level can feel like a rarity for someone who works for herself and from home. I found small scraps of it by tweeting about beans and trading tips on fertilizer in the DMs of people I’d never met before.
I’m far from the first to find the cultivation of a garden sustaining and curative. For nature writer Robin Wall Kimmerer, the secret to happiness was revealed in a bumper crop of beans. “I knew it with a certainty as warm and clear as the September sunshine,” she wrote. “The land loves us back.” And for novelist Yoojin Grace Wuertz, a tiny basil plant was a life raft with which she survived a harrowing cycle of rejection and loss: “I began to accept the notion that the natural world had its own rhythms and timeline that I could not change no matter how hard I pushed.”
The author and neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote that New York City’s public gardens functioned not just as a place of inspiration for his own work, but as a source of healing for his patients at Beth Abraham Hospital in the Bronx. “As a writer, I find gardens essential to the creative process,” he wrote in his posthumous collection of essays, Everything in Its Place. “As a physician, I take my patients to gardens whenever possible.” He described seeing Alzheimer’s patients who’d lost memory of basic functions suddenly know precisely what to do with a pack of seeds and a plot of earth.
Other doctors and mental health professionals have recognized the therapeutic effects of gardening, too, prescribing “horticultural therapy” to aid in addiction recovery, depression, and other mental health issues. Some studies suggest that common soil bacteria can act as an antidepressant in humans. Biologist E.O. Wilson hypothesized that a love for nature (what he called “biophilia”) is rooted in humans, perhaps even genetically. “Instinctively, without understanding what’s happening, they know that in certain wild environments, they have come home,” he once told the Washington Post.
Writing in solitude can create its own mental fog. Even when it doesn’t feel like I’m swimming through sorghum, the freelance life is inherently unpredictable and uncertain. It can make one feel deeply vulnerable. And the multitasking it requires can wreak havoc on one’s attention span: managing deadlines, sending invoices, understanding contracts, following up with AWOL editors, constantly churning out pitches, and setting up interviews, not to mention putting words on that white page.
During the workday, I now find myself walking laps around my yard while taking phone calls, passively gazing into butter-yellow pistils and huffing the chlorophyll breath of tomato leaves while negotiating rates or questioning sources.
Gardening at this scale is hardly the most efficient or cost-effective way to feed oneself — I’m lucky if I get one strawberry a week, and I still buy most of my groceries from the store. But the reward runs deeper than that. Apart from the seeds, plants, soil, and supplies one buys, a garden is a place of a thousand small tasks to fuss about and tend to: soil pH, compost, drainage, irrigation. There are squirrels and birds and aphids to fend off, and pollinators to entice. There is in fact, as Wuertz pointed out, “no end to the amount you can care about a garden.”
But that’s the point. This steady, slow, rhythmatic, nurturing of a living thing, watching it grow from a slip of green to a thriving, lush being, provides a vital tether to the present, and to my surroundings. It is a simple yet deeply profound agreement: I take care of something, and it feeds me.
And then, suddenly, it arrives — one day, just like that. The gift of fruit, and a rare kind of ecstasy.