Nature is such a powerful cure-all that ecotherapy uses it as a tool to professionally boost growth, healing and reduce stress. It is more than figuratively grounding to be digging in the earth; soil has antidepressant qualities and can make you happy!
For an informal mental health boost from interacting with nature in our own yard, both flower and edible gardening can help, but the task of protecting plants so we can have their fruits or flowers is about control which can be stressful for those of us that suffer from anxiety. Garden forums for example seem be focused on destroying “pests”. There is nothing relaxing about gruesome tasks like leaving out jar lids of beer for slugs to drown in, pouring boiling water in holes to kill ants or bees, or picking insects off plants and putting them in soapy water!
For me, gardening for nature, or naturescaping, is more aligned with coexisting with nature and about letting go. There is not as much power or destruction. After living through the last couple years, who isn’t looking for a peaceful way to refocus and live in the moment? Without going full TMI, I can speak to the power of naturescaping because I have childhood related complex PTSD and it has been one of most successful ways of reducing the chronic stress of being on alert for danger 24/7 (others are cooking, meditation, and of course professional therapy).
My traditional gardening tasks have been replaced by creating dense plant communities that are self-sustaining in the many microclimates of my small semi-urban yard. Once the communities are established, the perfectionist impulse to move things around to organize them is great, but I’m pushing back against this to see how they fuse together. I’m growing for wildlife, so I need to let nature do most of the heavy lifting.
There are dozens of large and small ways reclaiming nature is about letting go.
I’m letting native plants that thrive have freer reign. I let mountain-mint (pycnanthemum muticums) and goldenrod varieties (solidago) take up chunks of valuable real estate in my small yard because they are both top pollinator plants. Once the stress of creating neat rows of well-behaved plants is gone, the decisions I have to process are how to make my yard as valuable as possible for wildlife.
I’m letting plants die when they don’t grow well in my ecosystem even if they grow well for everyone else or I love the way they look. This one is a work in progress. Flyr’s nemesis (Brickellia cordifollia) for example is a charming plant that is native to Georgia, Florida, and Alabama. I planted it in three places which is what I do to figure out where a plant might grow best in my yard. It died out in all three places which tells me it is not a good choice for my yard.
I’m letting where I live dictate what plants belong in my yard and not my acquisitive desire for the rare and unusual. It is a bit worrisome how much the exotic ornamental mentality of prized plants is to shake. I see evidence of it creeping into the native plant world, particularly when a group of native plant gardeners start comparing notes about different varieties of a plant species or get excited about a rare native plant someone might have. It's human nature.
I’m letting vines like native coral honeysuckle (lonicera sempervirens) and passionflower vine (passiflora incarnata) grown horizontally and create groundcovers once they wander away from the confines of my trellises. Selecting native vines to grow horizontally as a groundcover is an intriguing idea I’m just starting to explore.
I’m letting plants grow and intermingle with each other in random ways without obsessively staking them. In a prairie there is not as much flopping because of how dense the plants are. It is hard to replicate this kind of dense biodiversity in a yard. Some plants are also meant to flop. Birds, chipmunks, and other creatures darting in and out of the tangle of plants in my yard throughout the year seem to appreciate my laissez faire approach.
I’m letting nature take its course as much as I can. Wildlife doesn’t see property boundaries, so once bees, butterflies, birds, or squirrels leaves the sanctuary of my yard, I have no control over what happens to them. Even in my yard, I’m learning to be a bystander to the drama unfolding...although I admit jumping in to help things along!
I’m letting wildlife visit and live in my self-regulating ecosystem without harm. Unless there is a man-made disruption to the balance from a neighboring yard, I have no "pests" in my yard. The only unwelcome guests might be rats, and the rat snakes seem to keep them at bay. Lawns also seem to be one of the primary reasons many people don’t like wildlife in their yard. This year I learned people actually use medieval plunger traps that spear moles to stop them from making “unsightly” mounds searching for grub and voles because they chew on a few roots. I have no lawn so I don't notice mole mounds and if any voles chomping on my plants become abundant, they will attract predators.
What I’m not letting go.
I’m not suggesting reclaiming nature is an excuse to not maintain my yard. I live in a residential area with small lots, so I’m not turning my yard into a Life After People scenario. Paths are plentiful, plants are labeled, hardscapes are kept clear, and non-native invasive weeds are removed. Every inch of my yard is intentionally naturescaped including the pocket prairie I’ve created in my right-of-way strip.
If the goal is to make my yard a sanctuary for wildlife, there is still the unavoidable ongoing anxiety of keeping my yard safe from other humans. I go full honey badger making sure neighboring yards don’t let leaf blowers or pesticides destroy even an inch of my ecosystem or let landscape light pollution illuminate my dark yard at night. I once had a mean-girl neighbor tell me it was “sad, really that I don’t have anything better to do with my time” than protecting my plants from her weed whacking yard workers. She didn’t realize she was complimenting me because I can’t think of anything more important or restorative on many levels than spending my time protecting nature!
The most challenging and healing part of reclaiming nature in my yard has been letting go of the control I once had over my traditionally landscaped yard where there were millions of gardening resources telling me when and how to plant, fertilize, prune, and arrange my plants. The more ungardened my yard becomes the less time I spend “gardening” and the more time I spend mindfully appreciating the nature in it.