Gardening and The Time Paradox

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It’s a little while since I wrote a garden book review. Followers of my Instagram account may know that I am reading Beth Chatto’s Garden Notebook month by month, and I won’t be ready to review this until I finish the year’s journey with her in December. I also have another gardening book on the go, one of Christopher Lloyd’s, and I’ll review that in due course too. In between reading these gardening books as well as fiction, I’ve now started my new garden design classes and have whole library shelves of delectable design books available to me: plenty to keep my eyes occupied. Meanwhile, another book I recently read gave me a great deal to think about. It’s not a gardening book, but it was so tempting to extrapolate its ideas to gardeners that I thought I’d write this post about it. The book is called The Time Paradox: The New Psychology Of Time and was written by two psychologists of Stanford University, Philip Zimbardo and John Boyd.

I first picked this book up in the hopes of finding an explanation of why I am late for everything. (I did find out, incidentally: I’m a ‘Present Hedonist’, forever too deeply immersed in the current moment to notice the clock). But far beyond that, the book described the many intriguing different ways we perceive time, and how our balance of past, present and future perspective drives everything we do. It describes how our view of the past (positive or negative) determines our contentment in the present, and has less to do with the magnitude of events in our past than our way of framing them. Our relationship with the present is just as important. Reminders to live ‘mindfully’ aren’t necessary for us ‘Present Hedonists’, who rarely forget to stop and smell the roses or sit and enjoy the garden. (We never get anything useful done, mind you, but at least we are less prone to chronic stress and its related diseases.) ‘Present Fatalists’ on the other hand, feel that their life is governed by external influences over which they have little or no control, a perspective that is linked to anxiety and depression. Then there are the ‘Futures’, people whose actions today are driven by anticipation of tomorrow’s gains. Futures are good at delayed gratification. They study for exams, they invest in their pensions, they are always on time for the train. They are the lawyers and accountants who make the world go round while the Presents are smelling the roses and forgetting to submit their tax returns. We all need a good balance between a Past-Positive, Present-Hedonistic, and Future perspective in order to lead a healthy and productive life. So what has this all got to do with gardening?

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There could hardly be a better pastime in which past, present and future are more intricately woven. Let me illustrate with a simple vignette. At the end of last month, I decided that my wildflower crates were past their best (they had never really got off the ground, to tell the truth), and I decided to replant them for winter. I pulled the remains of the wildflowers out, first snipping off anything that could be used for a vase. I walked over to the compost heap, took off the lid, had a good look inside first, and then threw the spent wildflowers in. Then I spent a good few minutes flicking the brandling worms off the side so they wouldn’t be squashed when I put the lid back on. Large ones first, then the smaller ones, then tapping the lid to knock any off the lip and into the bin. Some of them got stuck, and I scooped them off delightedly, squeamishly, with a forefinger, which I then wiped on my jeans. (Can you see why I’m late for everything?)

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I replaced some of the old soil in the crates with new compost, mixing it in with my bare hands, heedless of the dirt I was going to have to scrape out from under my fingernails later on in order to be hand-hygeine-presentable for my day job as a ‘Future’ at the hospital. I liked the smell of the compost and the way it felt. Time slipped like soil between my fingers as I searched for vine weevil grubs (none to be seen). Once the soil was prepared, I planted some snowdrop bulbs. My favourite flowers are snowdrops, and the thought of that first sighting of glaucous shoots in a dark January brings me great anticipation for the season ahead. With the pleasure of past winters always vivid in my mind, I took a large bag of snowdrop bulbs and divided them between the two crates, arranging them in an even pattern across the soil, pressing them in with my thumb. I’ve never planted snowdrops from dry bulbs in autumn before, and it will be five months before I see the results of this trial. I also planted some Narcissus ‘Minnow’ in the gaps between the snowdrops, having admired a picture of them in a magazine; it will be seven months before I see those in flower. To give me something to enjoy today and for the rest of the autumn, I topped the crates with generous pink and white Bellis daisies, bought at the garden centre in a present-oriented splurge. Memories of past enjoyment motivating me to take time over a pleasurable job in the present in order to reap future rewards. Little wonder gardening is therapy.

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People who have a tendency to live in the present are at a disadvantage in the Northern Hemisphere’s future-driven clock-time culture. On the other hand, you can hardly open a newspaper or social media site these days without seeing an article about how we should all be practising mindfulness and living more in the present. It’s getting the balance right that’s key, and I’m convinced gardening can help. Much has been written about gardening and mindfulness: how tilling the earth and being close to nature makes us slow down and experience the infinitesimal now. But what about gardening and a future perspective? Well, if anything could reorientate someone to a future perspective, it’s gardening. Practically every intervention in gardening is made with the future in mind. We plant bulbs in autumn so that we have flowers in spring. We sow seeds in February so that we have vegetables in June. When we plant a sapling, we are not thinking only of the benefit for ourselves, but of future generations, of people we may never know, who never knew we existeda transcendental future. Gardening teaches us about patience, consequences, delayed gratification, investment of time and effort. If education exists to turn Present-Hedonistic children (and adults) into well behaved Futures, then there’s no education like the experience of a dreary, tulip-less spring to galvanise a Present Hedonist into getting those bulbs planted in autumn. If I were a psychologist interested in the time perspectives of gardeners, I’d test the correlation between a Future orientation and a willingness to sow biennials.

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I would also test the correlation between enjoyment of weeding versus a Present or Future perspective. As a Present Hedonist, I adore weeding. Give me a hand fork and a podcast and I’ll happily pull creeping buttercups for hours. I enjoy the task itself much more than the result. Put a Future to the same task and they’ll get on with it too; but with merely the return on investment in mind they are likely to find it a mundane, if necessary chore. It’s the Present Fatalists who suffer most. With little consideration for any future return on their investment of time, and a sinking feeling that no matter how many weeds they pull they’ll never get them under control, weeding becomes a hated and seemingly pointless chore. Yet, gardening is a science, and reliable outcomes can be achieved through specific actions, so there could hardly be a better or more pleasurable way of engaging the Present Fatalist and showing them that this is one arena in which they can take control. To this group of people, who have often had the least control over their lives (through adverse social or economic circumstances, for example) and who suffer frequently from mental health disorders, gardening perhaps has the most to offer.

If you are interested in finding out about your own time perspective scores, you can test yourself on the Zimbardo Time Perspective Inventory.

Zimbardo, P and Boyd, J. (2008) The Time Paradox: The New Psychology Of Time. First edition, London: Rider.

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