getting to the root of it

It was a late summer day in September as I strolled around the neighborhood indulging in the last yellow blooms of marigolds and the final pink bursts of impatiens in neighbors’ yards before autumn arrived.

I never had a green thumb and was always envious of other people’s lush gardens and landscaped yards, rich with dizzying arrays of roses and tulips, colorful rows of potted geraniums, and graceful lilac trees arching over flagstone paths. Though I can manage indoor house plants well enough, when it comes to growing anything outdoors, I’m not always equal to the challenge.

But when Boyce Mayview Park in Upper St. Clair sought helpers to weed and water their rain garden this past July, I volunteered. Weeding—almost the opposite of growing—was something I felt capable of doing. I also thought it might be fun working alongside others in a natural outdoor setting as we tamed an overgrown garden and restored it to order.

I was right about my ability to weed, but wrong about the social camaraderie part. As the sole volunteer, I gazed out at the rain garden run wild with weeds—more like a rain forest—and realized it was just me alone with the bumblebees and the banana slugs. Undaunted, I pulled up my sleeves, donned a sun hat, put on gardening gloves and prepared to attack.

Every day for a week by myself, I snipped away at the unkempt grass with my razor-sharp clippers and rooted out the stubborn weeds with my trusty spade. Some weeds were easily uprooted, their roots soft and pliant in the wet ground from previous torrential rains. Other weeds were more resistant, forcing me to dig ferociously before their roots complied. I was careful not to disturb too much of the Queen Anne’s lace or the blue chicory, but I ripped out the ubiquitous creeping Charlie with frenzied glee.

As each morning passed under the blistering sun, my efforts were rewarded when the flowering plants emerged uncluttered by weeds and the garden paths leading to the central bath fountain were unclogged, no longer choked by vines.

image courtesy

While the sweat poured profusely down my brow and the dirt clung to my arms and legs, I felt a special satisfaction clearing out the ugly weeds and rotten stems and crumbling leaves. It occurred to me that physically weeding that garden was also helping me to mentally clear out my mind.

We all have dusty cobwebs and dead wood in the corners of our minds—old grudges, festering fears, lingering doubts, underlying resentments, petty jealousies, negative thoughts and hateful feelings. When I weeded the garden, I had time to reflect and contemplate upon these nasty mental weeds which impede our potential and inhibit the growth of more constructive attitudes.

Reminded of what the French philosopher Voltaire once wrote, “We must cultivate our own garden,” I took a lesson from the bedraggled rain garden. Surrounded by the wasps and the worms, in the midst of nature in all its burgeoning glory, I resolved to rid myself of unhealthy baggage, to become more positive and understanding and accepting, and to be less angry and intolerant and unforgiving. I vowed to sow optimistic seeds rather than pessimistic ones, and to untangle my dysfunctional weeds and deracinate them, thus encouraging my inner garden to thrive.

Freeing the garden of its debris simultaneously freed my mind and cleansed my conscience. Again, like Voltaire wrote, “Man is free the moment he wishes to be.”

You can reap the benefits—both physical and mental– of weeding and cultivating a garden in your own backyard, but if you want to try volunteering like I did, opportunities exist in our own community.  The Mt. Lebanon Nature Conservancy regularly solicits volunteers to control invasive species of plants in Bird Park and to rejuvenate trails. To learn more about these projects, search

The Mt. Lebanon Public Works Department also welcomes volunteers to plant and maintain public flower beds to beautify our street corners. For more information, call the Public Works Department at (412) 343-3403 or check online at

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