Working in the garden

Planting a tree is purposeful engagement; putting my winter rosemary into a bigger pot because it became pot-bound is an act of caring. I am pausing to observe the robin curiously observing me. The air is still chilly, and the winged ethnographer quickly loses interest in his subject.

I check my nails: they will never be long.

I always wondered

Why is it that my thoughts quieten, when I take my laptop and papers, and settle–still wrapped in layers, after all it’s April in Scotland–on one of the comfortably woven chairs? Embracing work outdoors is like a ceasefire agreement with the white noise. My ongoing battle stops for a blissful period of calm. So much so that I even stop the audio-books, music, TV shows etc, which usually entertain Statler and Waldorf’s background commentary. Working in my garden is an act of self-care and an act of deep work.

Both gardening and working in the garden seem to have benefits. The effect of gardening appears to reach far beyond that of a relaxing hobby. Recent research indicates that gardening has a positive impact on brain nerve growth factors (Park et al., 2019). Not to speak of mental health benefits and attention restoration (Raymond et al., 2019)–so much so that it is used as a form of therapy (McHugh & Ord, 2018). While research findings (Ohly et al., 2016) are not entirely concise, there is evidence that exposure to natural environment has a restorative effect on attention. Experientially, when the office gets too much I move into the close-by botanical gardens.

The rose garden in summer for added sensory pleasure, the fern house when the weather is particularly Scottish, because I can think better there.

Deep Work

A friend recently recommended Cal Newport’s book Deep Work to me and although I am only on page 58 I relate so much to it. Reading the book has already had an impact and I try to carve out smaller chunks of deep work, to lower attention residue and fragmentation. So, for instance I am experimenting with scheduling the answering of emails to three times a day. Which has of course fallen flat during assignment submission times because I do not want to let students struggle with things that go bump last minute. Despite these measures I find myself craving for quiet time. To retreat into the zone and focus on managing projects, developing learning and teaching content, writing publications, analysing data.

In our garden, Alpha has installed outdoor power-outlets, and another WiFi hot-spot. But not just my laptop, I am also much more connected, more present out here. I look up from my writing to formulate a thought. A first ladybird is warming it’s wings in the sun. Wind catches the edge of my paper and ruffles the pages curiously. That’s why I work in academia. Like brother wind I am ever curious. I never want to stop learning. There are always more questions; more places to go.

But the question: Why; why does the garden calm and focus the mind? Remains unanswered so far.


McHugh, A., & Ord, G. (2018). Therapeutic gardening. Retrieved from

Ohly, H., White, M. P., Wheeler, B. W., Bethel, A., Ukoumunne, O. C., Nikolaou, V., & Garside, R. (2016). Attention Restoration Theory: A systematic review of the attention restoration potential of exposure to natural environments. Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health, Part B, 19(7), 305–343.

Park, S.-A., Lee, A.-Y., Park, H.-G., Lee, W.-L., (2019). Benefits of Gardening Activities for Cognitive Function According to Measurement of Brain Nerve Growth Factor Levels. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 16(5), 760.

Raymond, C. M., Diduck, A. P., Buijs, A., Boerchers, M., & Moquin, R. (2019). Exploring the co-benefits (and costs) of home gardening for biodiversity conservation. Local Environment, 24(3), 258–273.

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