Finding healing through gardening


By AGENCY

Tulips and pansies stand in a bed in the morning sun. Barbara Lawson first planted greenery, for comfort, then added colour as her mental health improved. Photos: dpa

On a Sunday afternoon, inside a whimsical Redondo Beach plant shop, in Los Angeles, eight women and I sat at a workshop table, smiling and laughing as we played with dirt.

With bird chirping sounds and meditation music humming in the background, we closed our eyes and dug our hands into containers filled with soil, noticing the coolness of it and its texture. There were tissue boxes within reach in case we needed to wipe away any tears.

“Remember when we were little, we weren’t scared of this,” said Barbara Lawson, who was leading the group at Meet Me in the Dirt, which she opened at the South Bay Galleria in 2022.

In the 2,400sq ft (223sq m) space, which is brimming with houseplants and self-care products, Lawson holds gatherings such as group journalling events, wellness retreats, grief counselling sessions and today’s workshop, a soil meditation experience.

“The efficacy of gardening and mental health is a real thing,” said Lawson, who is also a certified grief counsellor.

“Not only did it heal me, [I’ve been] able to use it to help heal other people.”

At the workshop table, Lawson offered us gloves but discouraged us from wearing them, so we could experience the benefits of putting our hands in the soil. Some research suggests that a bacterium found in soil, Mycobacterium vaccae, may help fend off stress.

“My mama used to tell me, ‘A little dirt don’t hurt’,” Lawson, 51, quipped.

Lawson knows firsthand the impact that playing in soil and being exposed to greenery can have on one’s wellness.

Although she grew up watching her grandmother tend to the fruit trees in her garden when she was a child, Lawson didn’t pick up gardening until she was in her 30s. As a wife and mother of six children – she has a blended family – Lawson used gardening to carve out alone time and express herself creatively.

Barbara Lawson started the cafe Meet Me in the Dirt, in California, to help others heal through exposure to greenery.Barbara Lawson started the cafe Meet Me in the Dirt, in California, to help others heal through exposure to greenery.

The self-taught painter, who only paints flowers and has a functional art business called Barbara’s Delight, planted trees and colourful flowers in her backyard. The garden was “my escape”, she said.

Then over time, Lawson stopped spending as much time in her garden. And before she knew it, more than a decade had passed since she’d tended to it.

“I’m a very optimistic person – that’s my normal personality – [but] I started noticing a very dull sadness [in myself],” she recalled. “It didn’t come on all of a sudden, it was something that crept in a little bit at a time.”

Lawson realised that she was going through a period of depression because she’d never fully grieved her mother’s death. Her mum died from congestive heart failure when Lawson was 24 years old.

“If you do not deal with [grief], it can come back to create problems later,” Lawson said. Instead of confronting the pain of her mother’s death, she focused on her career and raising her family, she added.

“Nobody sits around and talks about how to deal with the loss of a person, a relationship or a career,” Lawson said, adding that other cultures such as the Latino community have holidays like Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) to grieve their loved ones.

But many Black people “are not in contact with whatever our traditional practices were, so beyond the funeral, there is no other support there”.

The thought of her mother “not being here hurt too much, so I pushed the memories away”, said Lawson, “even if I knew instinctively that I wanted to think about her.”

In 2016, Lawson started going to therapy for the first time, and her therapist suggested that she get back into gardening since it used to bring her so much joy.

One day, after she returned home from therapy, Lawson gutted her garden so she could start anew. At first, she planted vegetables and fruits, including eggplant, corn, watermelon and cucumber, as well as a herb garden.

When she was sad, she wanted to be around greenery “because that meant something was growing”, Lawson said. “Green is serene. It is calming and it just means growth. That’s what I felt like I needed.”

As she started to feel more like herself, she slowly added more colour to her garden. She planted an array of flowers, including black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta), daisy-like cosmos, sunflowers and pansies.

As Barbara Lawson began to process her grief, she planted more colourful plants, such as sunflowers, in her garden.As Barbara Lawson began to process her grief, she planted more colourful plants, such as sunflowers, in her garden.

She also decorated the garden with keepsakes from her life, including some of her mother’s antiques and her husband’s old work boots, which she used to hold plants.

“It was literally saving my life,” Lawson said. “Doing sustainable gardening helped me kind of put myself back together.” She documented her healing journey on Facebook and talked about the correlation that gardening had with her life.

Miracle of monarch butterflies

After discovering several caterpillars in her backyard, Lawson decided to raise monarch butterflies in her garden as well. And to her surprise, they transitioned into fully formed butterflies on her mother’s birthday.

“It was like [God] being like, ‘It’s done,’” she said, adding that she felt like she’d gone through a transition just like the butterfly. “For Him to give me [that] gift on her birthday was a miracle.”

After discovering caterpillars in her backyard, Barbara Lawson decided to raise monarch butterflies in her garden, and they transitioned into fully formed butterflies on her mother’s birthday, she says.After discovering caterpillars in her backyard, Barbara Lawson decided to raise monarch butterflies in her garden, and they transitioned into fully formed butterflies on her mother’s birthday, she says.

After this experience, Lawson started teaching people how to use plants for healing in their own lives via Facebook Live. She also demonstrated how to grow food and start herb gardens. And because her garden was overflowing with plants, she began selling some of them.

Then in early 2020, Lawson was laid off from her corporate job with an anaesthesia company. The timing worked out perfectly, though, because she was already planning to leave so she could focus on building Meet Me in the Dirt.

In April 2021, she converted a small bus that she found on Facebook Marketplace into a mobile plant nursery, which she named “Oasis”. (She refers to Oasis as a woman.) Each weekend, she’d take Oasis to farmers markets and pop-up events around Los Angeles to sell plants and teach people about their healing powers.

After several months of doing that, she purchased a space to do this outside of the Del Amo Fashion Center in Torrance.

A few months later, a representative from the South Bay Galleria asked her if she’d be open to having a storefront for Meet Me in the Dirt inside the mall. Lawson wasn’t interested at first because she loved her mobile nursery, but when she saw the space in person, she knew that she had to have it.

The retail space “fit into my God-sized dream”, she said, adding that she wanted to have a place where she could meet with her grief counselling clients, host events regularly and provide an overall wellness retreat experience. She officially opened the plant shop and wellness centre in June 2022.

Meet Me in the Dirt sells an array of houseplants and self-care products, such as candles, body oils and bath salts that Lawson makes herself.

Lawson said she wants people to feel like they are transported into a healing oasis each time they enter the store.

The space, which looks like an enchanted forest, is filled with easy-care houseplants including monsteras, different types of pothos, Zanzibar Gems (aka ZZ plants), calatheas and aglaonemas. Sparkling chandeliers hang from the ceiling. Floral sculptures appear throughout the store, including one that is garbed in a silk robe.

A projector screen displays a peaceful waterfall and meditation music plays on a loop. There’s also a swing near the front of the shop, and a framed photo of Lawson’s mother sits near the cash register.

Once you walk over a turf-grass-covered bridge toward the back of the shop, there are five “Zen” rooms, which people ages 21 and up can rent for US$50 to US$100 (RM237 to RM474) per hour. (The price varies depending on which amenities you select, such as a meal, an art box, a massage with a professional masseuse, etc). The rooms represent, and are named after, what people may need in their life at that time. The names include worthy, valued, cherished (this room has a massage chair inside), loved and chosen.

In addition to soil meditation experiences, Lawson hosts birthday parties, private gardening classes, bridal showers, women empowerment workshops and more at the shop. People can rent the store for private events as well.

Soil meditation

Although Brenda Gallow has been to Meet Me in the Dirt several times, she started crying when she walked inside on a recent visit.

“It never fails,” she said. “The aroma. The scent. My soul [feels] like it’s releasing.”

A corn plant blooms despite drought. Barbara Lawson’s therapist suggested gardening so she first planted vegetables and fruits, before later embracing flowers.A corn plant blooms despite drought. Barbara Lawson’s therapist suggested gardening so she first planted vegetables and fruits, before later embracing flowers.

Gallow met Lawson several years ago when she purchased a few Barbara’s Delight products. She also held her 60th birthday party at the Meet Me in the Dirt shop. What keeps her coming back is the feeling she gets when she’s there, Gallow said.

She believes the experience is more than just playing in the dirt. “You literally find yourself,” she said.

“You can come and do work here. You can be worked on and blessed all at the same time.”

Gallow added, “This is a safe haven for no matter what you’re going through.”

For Angela Cooper, Lawson’s recent soil meditation event gave her “permission” to relax and prioritise herself.

“She knows I have a lot going on in my life and [that] I don’t get a lot of self-care in, so she wanted me to come and not worry about anything else.

“Not worry about the kids [or] my family – just worry about me” said Cooper, who has been friends with Lawson since high school. She’s attended several of Lawson’s workshops, but this was her first time doing the soil meditation.

“It was very refreshing and rewarding, especially when our hands were in that dirt,” she said, adding that it felt good to soothe herself with it. “I’m always blessed when I come here.”

Towards the end of the two-hour workshop, Lawson instructed everyone to pick a plant that we felt most called to. I chose a monstera, with its leaves like Swiss cheese, because of its uniqueness. Then Lawson told us to remove our plants from the flimsy plastic pots they came in, so we could repot and place them into larger pots that were more sturdy. (All of the materials, including the plants and pots, were provided by Lawson as part of the US$75/RM355 workshop.)

Barbara Lawson created an oasis of space with plants such as the monstera.Barbara Lawson created an oasis of space with plants such as the monstera.

It was easy to pull out my monstera plant from its original pot, but I watched as others struggled to remove theirs because the roots had grown so thick and tight. Some women even had to stand up in order to remove their plants.

“Sometimes you’re going to have to take really drastic moves [and] apply force to remove yourself from a place,” Lawson said in a tender, motherly tone. Like plants, we can get comfortable in a space even though we’ve outgrown it, she said.

That was the moment when Lawson’s message clicked for many of the women, including me, and tears began to fall.

Once we finished repotting our plants, one of Lawson’s assistants passed out plastic monarch butterflies for us to place in our pots. The butterflies were meant to serve as a visual reminder of how far we’d come and what we had to shed along the way in order to enter a new season.

“This is still a caterpillar,” Lawson said as she held up the plastic butterfly. “It’s just a fuller version of itself.” – dpa/tca/Los Angeles Times/Kailyn Brown

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