Purposeful Activity

Last Sunday I decided to clear out my tulip bed. The tulips have finished flowering, and I wanted to prepare the bed for the dahlias.

I love digging in my raised beds. I have added plenty of compost to lighten my clay soil, and it is now easy to work. It is rich and crumbly. When I sinking my sharp spade into it, it slices like a dark chocolate cake.

If I dig down deep (40-50cm) then I can lift up the whole tulip bulb with its foliage. This is really satisfying! There are lots of little games I play when I am gardening. I lose myself in the challenge I have set myself.

It is also really interesting to dig down and see the tulip growing from the bulb deep in the soil. I can see all the work that the tulip did before its leaves even burst out of the soil. It went in as a bare bulb, and since then has sprouted a whole head of hair (the roots), not to mention the stem, leaves and flower head.

Digging for treasure. Hairy tulip bulbs.

The bulb went into the soil in November looking like a smooth onion. Now many of the bulbs have developed little baby bulblets around the edge, and so the bulb looks like a head of garlic.

I could nuture these bulblets in a pot, and over a couple of years they will be big enough to produce full-sized tulip flowers.

But I am a greedy and self-indulgent tulip-grower. I like to grow different varieties each year, playing with new combinations of colour, texture and flower form. (You can see the fun I have had this year and last year).

It might seem a bit wasteful, but tulips tend to diminish each year in our heavy clay soil.

So I dig them up, and snap the stem, leaves and spent flower away from the bulb. The foliage goes in the compost, and the bulb gets tossed behind the compost heap. Each year, a few of these bulbs survive and flower behind the compost heap. It always delights me to spot this motley crew of survivors.

I asked my daughter Cate to take some photos of me digging up tulip bulbs. Then she asked if she could help. We spent a lovely half hour digging together, tossing bulbs into the wheelbarrow.

Once we had finished, Cate asked what else she could help with. We went to the greenhouse and Cate helped me move the dahlias onto the patio so that they can be hardened off for a week.

Dahlias in large pots, hardening off outside for a couple of weeks.

Dahlias are the perfect succession planting for following on from tulips.

You plant tulip bulbs in November; they grow away through the winter and flower in April and into May. Then you can either leave them in place and over-plant them with dahlias in mid to late May. The dahlias will start to flower in early July and continue until the first frosts in November. The dahlia tubers can either be left in place and compost earthed up on top, or dug up and stored over winter in dry compost in the garage or shed. You plant out the tulips and the cycle starts again…

I start my dahlia tubers off in big pots in the greenhouse in March. They take about three weeks to start sprouting. I water them once a week initially, and then twice a week once they get going. I pinch out the tips to encourage bushy growth. In the first or second week of May, so long as there are no frosts forecast, I take the pots outside and harden them off for a week or two.

It is lovely to work the soil and see all the creatures living there. This is a helpful little worm

Cate said at the end of this that she thinks she really likes gardening. As you can imagine, this was music to my ears. Not only because I love gardening so much, and it is good to have a shared interest.

But also because Cate has been working really hard. When the UK government announced a few weeks ago that GCSE exams were cancelled this year, Cate didn’t really know what to do with herself. She launched herself into more study, starting her A Level syllabus. Whilst I am pleased that she loves to learn, I also think it is really important to be able to relax. We have talked about how hard she finds this.

Cate said that she enjoyed these gardening tasks because they had a purpose, and she could see the difference.

There are sensory pleasures: digging through soil, snapping off stems. There are games to play, like extracting a tulip in tact, or tossing bulbs into the wheelbarrow. There are things to observe and learn, like the way worms extend and contract when you hold them up, or the way slugs hide under pots by day, waiting to munch your dahlias by night. Gardening lends itself to a flow state; one thing leads to another, and before you know it, you have spent a very happy hour in the garden (I have written about ‘flow’ here).

Cate liked that she could see a meaningful difference, in that we had cleared a bed, weeded a patch, and moved pots. It was purposeful activity, and leisure, and relaxation, all at the same time.

Me, in the flow.

It might be challenging to find purposeful activity right now.

I set myself very small goals. I might weed a tiny patch for five minutes. It is amazing how many weeds you can pull in five minutes.

Whilst I am there I will almost inevitably come across something interesting and unexpected: hear a bumblebee, or tune into birdsong. I might notice the scent of foliage. I might play with how long I can squat or whether I can throw weeds into a bucket.

All this is valuable. Not only am I playing, and learning, and entering a ‘flow’ state. I am learning how to be with myself. It’s a bonus if someone else joins me. But being alone, and being comfortable with that is also purposeful activity.

Please do share your thoughts in the comments section. If you found this post helpful or unhelpful, I would be interested to know.

If you would like more ideas and inspiration for earthy delights and sensory pleasures in the garden, you might like to ‘follow’ The Mindful Gardener blog. You can click on the ‘follow’ button at the bottom of this page. You will receive an email notification, usually on Saturday morning, when I publish a new post.

Or feel free to share this post on social media, or with friends and family who might enjoy it. I would love to share this healthy addiction!

38 Comments Add yours

  1. Heyjude says:

    How delightful to see you Ali, and hard at work. My tulips are all but finished now too, though I have had several weeks of pleasure from them so can’t complain. I plan to leave some in their pots this year and see how well they return, I’ll give them a feed every couple of weeks (if I remember). Others will be removed and binned unless the bulbs are of a substantial size. I really treat them as annuals. As for weeding my five minutes often turns into a couple of hours! I swear there is a wormhole in the garden 😀

    1. Yes, my five minutes also easily turns into a couple of hours too! Thanks as ever for your lovely comments, Jude. Xxx

  2. John Sadler says:

    Apologies if you are already on their mailing list, but this is an interesting section from the National gardening Scheme that arrived fro me today; not quite about flow – but you will see what I mean. My garden is developing nicely (but slowly) after following your blog for a few years! https://ngs.org.uk/gardens-and-health-week

    1. Thank you for this link, John. I’m not on the mailing list – I’m used to picking up the booklet at a local cafe, which of course I haven’t done this year. Glad to hear about your garden; it takes a couple of years for a garden to grow into itself, doesn’t it? But then what a different once herbaceous perennials have reached full size.

  3. bcparkison says:

    Oh goodness…To keep or to pitch …that is the question. Can’t wait to see your beautiful Dahlias in bloom.

    1. Me too! I love looking forward to dahlias…

  4. It is wonderful to have a garden relationship with your daughter, Ali. My daughter just bought her first home, and is surprisingly enjoying whipping her gardens into shape. It is a surprise to me since she never offered to help at home. It now has brought us much closer together and it is fun to share extra plants with her. Enjoy this precious time together!!!

    1. Ah, that is lovely, Cindy. Gardening is like that, though isn’t it. You can have had no interest, or just not needed to do anything, and then when you have your own space and a little magic happens and you’re hooked. My daughter had been growing houseplants for a few months, which is funny, because it is an area of gardening that has never grabbed me. I have loved seeing her nurture her plants and create a little windowsill arrangement. She has a very artistic eye.

  5. kimberlycarlile says:

    I would like to try growing Dahlias on annual rotation like you do. What would I do to begin their growing season if I didn’t have a greenhouse?

    1. Hi Kimberly, thank you for your question. They are absolutely fine started off on a window sill in the house, which I did for several years before I had a greenhouse.

  6. First…it is soooooo fun to see photos of you! I’m glad you enlisted Cate’s help. And, how nice that your solitary activity became a shared one. My daughter and I have spontaneously joined forces on a couple of tasks, too. She’s working from home, but sometimes she’ll wonder in during her “lunch hour” to proofread a post for me or assist me in completing a closet clean up. I too am developing a daily rhythm. I’ve settled in, so to speak. It’s a good place to be as we are all together and healthy. Can’t wait to see the dahlias!

    1. Thank you Michele, that’s really nice feedback. Yes, daily routines shared are really special, aren’t they? Incidental intimacy.

  7. Angela says:

    How nice to see you having fun in the garden… a little ray of sunshine on what is here a very dreary day.

    1. I’m ready for some more sunshine now! It’s been sooo cold!

  8. Eliza Waters says:

    They say the acorn doesn’t fall far from the tree. It’s gratifying when a gardener’s child takes up the garden spade and catches the bug. 🙂

    1. I tried not to let my excitement show too much in case I spooked her! 😂

      1. Eliza Waters says:

        I was the same way when my son was 15 and showed interest in gardening. Cool exterior, screaming ‘Yes!’ inside, haha!

  9. fredgardener says:

    What a pleasure to see you Ali, .. and so shiny and happy !

  10. Yes, you do look happy and well contented, not to mention HEALTHY! I’ve been carving out small spots to clean out, bit by bit as age (yep, I got old!) allows. Still, I am amazed how one thing leads to another, one area leads to the next one, especially since my garden is planned in a flowing pattern. My husband chides me for not knowing when to stop.

    Your method of hardening off dahlias interested me as this year is my first foray into adding dahlias among my peonies. I have three small bags of tubers kept in winter storage in the laundry room cupboard, as per packet instructions. Now that we’re past “all” danger of frost, I hope to plant them tomorrow (Sunday) afternoon. Today’s job is to work in compost in those planting areas. Nothing said I had to hardened them off first. Well, we’ll see, I reckon.

    I loved seeing you at work in your garden, Alison. A picture of me actually working never occurred to me. Perhaps I could try it? Only under the shade of a faded garden hat, though.

    1. Thank you for your lovely comment. I guess planting tubers directly will just mean later flowers. I like having them in pots and nurturing them for a while. It all adds to the excitement!

  11. Emma Cownie says:

    It looks like hard but enjyable work.Nice to see your t-shirt matches the tulips too!!

    1. It’s one of my favourite tops and I realised I am wearing it nearly every photo on my blog!!

  12. Cathy says:

    Full frontal images too! That certainly wouldn’t happen here although you might get a back view of the Golfer occasionally 😉 I put most of my dahlias out a couple of weeks ago but I might cover them for the next few nights as we have temps of 2 degrees but ‘feels like minus two’ forecast. I put my tulips on the compost heap just as they come out, which is probably why I sometimes get them popping up in strange places, Neither of my girls ever showed an interest in gardening when at home, but one of them does put the occasional plant in a pot, so perhaps in years to come… A pleasure to read your post, so thanks for sharing

    1. I’ve got a fitted sheet to stretch over my dahlias tonight! Yes, I bet your girls will come to it eventually!

      1. Cathy says:

        Tablecloths over mine! 😁

  13. Kellie says:

    Yeah I love the garden too, to pull up the weeds, the sound of the bees buzzing, the birds singing, it is all very relaxing.

    1. Heaven. 🌷🤸🏽‍♀️

  14. I love these pictures of you, Ali! They are beautiful and playful. And I appreciate this reflection on gardening as play and meditation. Recently, I read a study suggesting that people spend more time on their social media than they do outside now. I thought, “Oh no! This is me!” I have conscientiously been working on reversing this state of affairs. To do that, I have been thinking about all the things I can do outside, and taking care of my plants and garden is one of the things. Your blog helps me think about how I can do that. Thanks, Friend.

    1. That’s so good to hear, Shelly. I am trying to drink my mid-morning coffee and eat my lunch outside every day. It feels like such a treat when I’m working from home, and is a welcome break from videoconferencing!

      1. Ali, this makes me so happy to hear that you are having this lovely restful time. It’s so important! I have been experiencing a lot of that, too. I have been walking and trail running in the forest in the morning all week, and it has been amazing. Such a gift.

    1. Thank you Saania, that is lovely to hear. ❤️🤸🏽‍♀️🌈

      1. My pleasure, followed you 💕

  15. Its so interesting how the different soil types affect the different plants isn’t it?I’m on a loamy soil here in Berkshire and tend to leave my tulips in the ground year after year. I do always plant a few in pots as I do love getting my hands into the soil to try and pull them up in tact. Like you say it’s almost a game. What varieties are you trying for the first time this year?

    1. Sorry fir the delay in replying! I only just found this. I am going for old favourites like ‘Ballerina’, ‘Antraciet’ and ‘Black Parrot’, as well as my new favourite ‘Slawa’. I will post pics on Instagram!

  16. Anonymous says:

    Cate may I ask where you are in the UK? I am in Edinburgh 🙂

    1. We’re in Kent, in the South East.

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