For the Love of Puttering
April 21, 2021
“Good thing Snow’s driving the cart,” my brother says to me over the phone. He’s navigating grocery aisles with his son steering, trying to find garlic oil for an earache. I sit on the stone stair in the sunniest spot in my garden, one hand holding the phone to my ear, the other combing the tangles out of the ‘Blonde Ambition’ grass.
Most of my attention was on the story Blue was telling. Even scattered with asides to the checker or to his boys, he’s a good story teller. That thing his dad (my stepdad) said to his mom the last time he saw her before she “mysteriously” stopped returning his calls? Not a compliment after all!
The rest of my mind’s attention snagged on the plantlets I had absently combed out of the grass (Bouteloua gracilis ‘Blonde Ambition’), how they piled up with the chafe and looked like little spider plant babies, green sprouting from blonde and brown clusters.
I laughed, unmasked and loud into the phone as I scooped the most vital looking runners into a separate group. I never knew that Bouteloua made these little propagules, these free babies, stolons shooting copies of themselves skyward. I’ll soak them for a bit, then push them into moist potting soil. The garden could always use some more blonde grass flowers floating like summering insects.
Puttering in the garden is productive, educational and completely acceptable to do while visiting on the phone!
You like to putter, I know you do.
Slow down. Let the garden speak to you. Head outside without the endless task list front and center in your mind. Instead, let it be the thing your gaze rests on, that which calls your attention: the seeking tendril of clematis to tuck into the trellis; a patch of little winter bittercress nearly seeding, still green – give those a quick tug; the clump of leaves in the fountain to scoop and clear away.
And then there’s the moments of pause when your busy hands fall to your sides, arms parallel, emblematic of pause, two lines, two arms. A dazzle of low sun rays angling from just north of west, through the limbs of blooming lilac, catches the freshness of the garden’s leaves. The pattern of emergence, rising up, fountain-ing. Hosta and Solomon’s seal – sheathed shoots pushing from the brown earth and unfurling, one grandly, one divided and adorned with white bell blossoms.
Only out puttering do you catch this sense of the season’s essence, it’s patterns. When you’re tending your plants, performing small, light tasks regularly, the benefit flows both ways – your garden thrives under your care and you grow healthy and resilient, nourished with the meditative practice of gardening.
I advocate daily puttering in your garden for maximum benefit.
Nothing heavy or that requires planning, no truck loads of things involved here (though I did meet a woman who takes the entire summer to move one load of wood chips to her paths – little at a time, the pace of puttering).
Puttering is a crepuscular activity like foraging birds and hunting beetles. Dawn, before the tasks of the day take over, and dusk, when they’re complete, are ideal times. Step outside, garden clogs on, breathe in the morning, the break of day, and walk through the garden. Sometimes you might touch nothing, just observe, other mornings may find you with dirty knees from that spontaneous grub-out-of-the-shining-geranium moment. It had to happen. Then later, belly full, day done to the best of your abilities, head back out again for your evening putter. Grab a basket, there might be some akebia flowers, tulips, and thyme to harvest. The garden smells different at dusk than at dawn. Have you noticed?
Puttering goes by many names and the varying moods that accompany them. The British are more likely to potter then putter with all the appropriate shearing devices readily at hand. Grandma’s out tootling and scooting, tending the roses. Then there’s the humming, daydreaming flavor of puttering, where your gaze grows soft and you finally understand your naturalist friend who talks of interconnectedness. There’s plenty of ways to putter lazily and you really should sample them all, but don’t be fooled, puttering can also look like mucking and tinkering, zipping and buzzing. When the mood strikes you, go at it! Just remember to change out of your nice white pants before you do.
My favorite form of puttering is putzing – just putzing around. I lose sense of time and just move with my fingers plucking weeds, thinning seedlings, snapping spent daffodils, bending to the task with ease – that’s the key to putzing – ease. Heavy garden tasks are best for a scheduled block of time (or outsourced!). Crepuscular puttering is easy, relaxed, never stressful.
Next time you’re out there woolgathering, putzing, goofing around, let yourself. All these little moments of interacting with your plants, seem small, in passing kind of tasks, like picking up the stray water glasses around the house, tossing socks in the hamper. But they yield a more beautiful garden. It’s loved and it shows. And your puttering actions generate a calmer mind, a nurtured soul. All the self care trends have nothing on the transformative joy that comes from regular contact with plants and place. The relationship links you to nature, to a very specific place in nature – your home.
May is Mental Health Awareness Month. There’s no shame in claiming what keeps your mind healthy and relieved from stress and anxiety. The more tools in the tool box the better! Let regular walks through your garden, touching, observing, editing, and breathing be one of your go-to tools for well-being.
Of course, if you step outside and feel instant overwhelm by the weedy disorder, chances are, casual tending to your plants is not an option. You first need to establish the layout and structure of your garden and it’s themed plantings. You need a design or at least a clear plan in mind to create a bit of friendly organization out of paths and beds, patios and a reduced lawn (doesn’t that lawn just want to run everywhere!?).
Open the back door to a beautiful patio, pots glowing with color and inviting a bit of care – tip the watering can on one, pluck the browned leaf and faded blossom on another. A path carries you further out into the garden, past leaves rustling, and further to admire the first bloom on the mock orange, sweet! But look, the ivy’s coming back. Give that a quick tug while it’s small. And you’re in. Let the puttering begin.
How do you like to putter? What does it look like for you? Comment below, proud putterer!