In the Garden

Gardening for Solastalgia

Photos by Felder Rushing.

My late grandmother’s prized antique concrete chicken stands firm on a pedestal in my cottage garden as a steady source of solace in a rapidly changing world. 

Spring flowers, busy bees, tolerable warm weather, and walking through DFW botanic gardens have kicked my tiny pineal gland into overtime, pumping spring fever hormones through my brain, getting me excited and wanting to do something outdoors. But this grizzled old gardener is no longer a spring chicken. 

Before heading outdoors, I satiate my overarching need for orderliness by making the bed. Something about straightening the linens and plumping pillows lets me know that I still have a grip on my little corner of the world.

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Sunny patio garden with edibles and leafy plants

And in the garden, I have finally started pulling in my horns a bit. No longer going wall-to-wall, I now tend a small potager garden on a sunny patio that keeps me occupied year-round. 

Clustered, colorful large pots are overstuffed seasonally with a mélange of low-care “designer” container veggies, useful culinary herbs, and cascading flowers; I added a rain gauge and gnarly tree branches as whimsical accents. 

It is an accessible, attractive little corner that helps me cope with angst over the weather and its effects on my garden and muse. 

This retired horticulturist now eschews the hustle of goal- or production-oriented horticulture and its exacting processes and arcane rules geared mainly toward making chores more efficient and productive. Sure, it helps when trying to grow our cut flowers, fill the freezer, get Yard of the Month or other accolades, or cultivate approval from neighbors.

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Felder’s tabletop herbs

But less serious gardening is a laissez-faire hobby, more about the planning and the journey than reaching a destination. Being amateur — the root word that translates “to love” — is more relaxing and emphasizes the here and now, the day-to-day interest or the challenges, or your inner nurturer. 

For those with time constraints or waning abilities, a single African violet or potful of hardy succulents or a small, raised bed may be all we need to harvest the emotional and mental bounties of gardening. 

Now I’m trying to mellow into being a less-stressed garden-variety gardener who loves to putter, stoically nonplussed by once-bothersome little things. 

My garden is no longer a proving ground or competition; I now grow mostly what I like, gradually removing or not replacing whatever causes me extra work with few rewards, and I outsource lawn care and big chores. 

As it turns out, gardening, along with creating a community through shared plants and experiences with family, friends, and neighbors, is helping me cope with my unexpected anxiety over physical, social, and environmental changes that are beyond my control. 

There’s a word for this unease: Solastalgia, which combines Latin sōlācium (comfort) and Greek algia (suffering, grief). 

Unlike nostalgia, in which we mourn for the past, solastalgia strikes when our surroundings slowly change right before our eyes. 

Do you ever sigh over the ripping out of a beloved old tree, a meadow of bluebonnets transformed into a shopping strip, or a familiar garden center’s closing? We are constantly being challenged to redefine how we relate to a landscape that has changed within our lifetime.

The good news is that recognizing solastalgia can help people seek well-being from others in family or religious gatherings, holiday celebrations, and catching up with old friends; talk therapy is about processing emotions through conversations with others, which can lead to validation, resilience, and growth.

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Coneflowers in a small garden patch in the front yard

I find gentle camaraderie in local gardening groups, a handful of friendly online garden communities, and local garden lectures — all places where we share successes, collaborate on new ventures, find consolation in failures, and share exciting plants better suited to what may be long-term environmental changes. It’s like an outdoor version of taking dance classes.  

While I often revel in sweet nostalgia, nurturing fond memories that made me who I am today, I’m resolving to charge ahead and embrace vicissitudes I can’t avoid. 

Instead of succumbing to solastalgia, I’m transforming my garden as needed while cheering on my garden friends with durable new plants and easier ways to grow them.   

With Granny’s flaking chicken as an anchor, it’s always improving.


Felder Rushing

Felder Rushing, author of over 30 gardening books and countless magazine and newspaper articles, hosts NPR's zany "Gestalt Gardener" program. Southern Living selected him as "One of 25 people most likely to change the South."

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