“One of the most striking findings was that men who developed ways of being generative in their 50s were three times more likely to be thriving at 80.”
— Sue Stuart-Smith, “The Well-Gardened Mind” (2020)
Throughout “The Well-Gardened Mind,” author Sue Stuart-Smith notes the psychological benefits of gardens and gardening. For instance, she says that gardening can enhance our emotional well-being, particularly during the second half of our life, by allowing us to fulfill a need for generativity — engaging in creative projects that extend beyond ourselves to benefit others.
Generativity versus stagnation is the seventh of eight developmental stages proposed by psychologist Erik Erikson. Sometime between the ages of 40 and 65, people start looking for ways to increase the meaning/purpose of their lives and some accomplish this by participating in activities that help others.
Stuart-Smith mentions the Harvard Grant study, which tracked the physical and emotional well-being of 456 men from 1939 to 2014. The researchers were surprised to learn that income did not play a significant role in determining the men’s overall quality of life; instead, the quality of the relationships they had with others, and how they spent their time, turned out to be more important.
According to Stuart-Smith, participants who spent their time “not so much in productivity but in generativity and various forms of creative play” maintained the highest quality of life in their later years. How, then, can we practice generative gardening?
Keep gardening. There’s no doubt that climate change is presenting gardeners with more challenges, and a lot of us are feeling discouraged. However, I’m not willing to throw in my trowel yet, and one reason for this is because I feel a generational responsibility to carry on the agricultural/horticultural heritage of my maternal ancestors. In addition, it’s important to me that I can count myself as a member of the human species in the 21st century who can grow some of my own food.
Record your garden and gardening practices. We are gardening in historical times, when extreme temperatures and erratic weather patterns are becoming more commonplace. It’s different to garden in the Rogue Valley today than it was when I arrived 12 years ago, much less a generation ago. By chronicling our gardens and gardening experiences during these changes, we contribute to a body of folk wisdom that can be shared with future generations of Rogue Valley gardeners.
Participate in community garden-watch projects. For example, the OSU Master Gardener program sponsors an annual “BioBlitz” day in spring when gardeners upload pictures of biodiversity in their gardens to OSU’s iNaturalist project. OSU’s Bee Atlas Project provides an opportunity for gardeners to help monitor Oregon’s bees. Pollinator Project Rogue Valley sponsors the Rogue Buzzway Project for gardeners to survey their pollinator habitat.
Share your garden with others. Perhaps the simplest way to practice generative gardening is to open our gardens to family, friends and neighbors. I recently watched an interesting documentary film called “The Gardener” (2016) about renowned horticulturalist Frank Cabot. He opened up his private garden, Les Quatre Vents, in Quebec to thousands of visitors and came to the conclusion that people who didn’t talk much, who just stood in one place for a while and drank in the landscape, were those who gained the most from their experience.
Share your garden produce. You may not need to talk a lot about your garden with visitors, but do share some garden produce — a just-ripened tomato, a newly opened flower, a sprig of fragrant rosemary. Another generative practice is to participate in the Plant-a-Row program sponsored by ACCESS, or volunteer in one of its food share gardens in the valley to help provide healthful food to local families in need.
Save seeds from your garden, buy local seeds. Saving seeds from plants we grow is a generative activity because we fulfill the life mission of the mother plant by growing her offspring. When we grow heirloom plants, native plants and plants from locally grown seeds, we contribute to biodiversity and healthy ecosystems for future generations, and we support local farmers.
Practice regenerative gardening. It’s interesting to note the connection between regenerative gardening and generative gardening because they work hand-in-hand. When we add organic matter to our soil from compost, mulch and cover crops, we regenerate the soil that will help sustain future gardens and future gardeners. When we quit using garden products derived from burning fossil fuels and mining minerals and learn how to make our own soil amendments from on-site materials, we’re engaging in both regenerative and generative gardening practices.
Share your gardening knowledge. It’s never been easier to share what we’ve learned about gardening — post a picture and caption to Instagram, create a YouTube video or podcast, or even volunteer to teach a class for one of the local gardening groups. Sharing gardening knowledge doesn’t have to be a formal activity; mentoring a new gardener or someone who recently moved to the valley offers mutually beneficial opportunities.
Keep learning. Generative gardeners keep looking forward, so our gardening lives don’t stagnate. We keep asking questions and seeking answers so that we might better care for our gardens and our planet. Fortunately, there are plenty of learning opportunities available — in person, online, in text. I’m already putting together my list of garden books to read and review for 2022.
Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. Email her at [email protected] For more about gardening, check out her podcasts and videos at https://mailtribune.com/podcasts/the-literary-gardener.
Master Gardeners of note
The OSU Master Gardener program recently named Medford resident Ronnie Budge as Master Gardener of the Year in Jackson County for her 10 years of service to the Master Gardener program and her challenging role as JCMGA president in 2020 during the pandemic. Master Gardener “Behind the Scenes” recognition was given to volunteers Dolly Travers, Katy Mallams, Jan Carlson and Viki Ashford, who have helped more than 1,000 local gardeners with their gardening questions in the plant clinic at the OSU Extension Service.