What Planting a Garden Taught Me About Self-Care and Community

For Nkoula Badila, cultivating and caring for plants is a way to connect not only with nature, but also with herself, those she loves, and her history. She reminds us that sometimes, what we need most is to give ourselves the right conditions to thrive.

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In the midst of uncertainty, confusion, and heartbreak, knowing that I can take a healthy seed, drop it in soil, expose it to water and sunlight, and watch it grow has always brought me a sense of peace. 

During the pandemic, I decided to name a plant after myself. I chose a Dracaena plant as my namesake, though we didn’t have a lot in common other than its spiky leaves bearing a slight resemblance to my hair. I recently discovered that I was eager to care for everyone but myself. I was quick to share a kind word with a friend but I was my harshest critic. I was patient with my family but I placed myself on the shortest leash. Caring for this plant was a way for me to start caring for myself.

Over time, as I checked on my plant’s health, presence, and location, I started to tap into its needs and desires. Slowly, this simple act of caring for a spiky plant helped me connect with myself and begin paying attention to my own needs. I was able to understand that, sometimes, pruning is required in order to grow. That you need to expose the roots (sometimes quite literally) to see what is affecting the overall health of the plant. It took some time, but eventually I was able to see how tender I am and to appreciate that I need to be seen and heard, felt, and catered to. I slowly began to uproot the stories written for me and began to remember that I had the power to write my own. And I think, in some way or another, this happens to all of us. We grow so accustomed to hearing our stories from other people, or maybe even ourselves, that we forget the impermanence of it all and our ability to rewrite those stories. 

Grow at Your Own Pace

On average, it takes a flowering plant up to 100 days to complete its growth cycle. So as you begin to write your own story, be patient, and remember that any good story takes time. 

Growing up, there were two things I always experienced in abundance: Plants and People. 

My father immigrated to America from Congo where he was deeply connected to plant medicine, so I had the fortunate experience of not only seeing plants as a source of food but as allies. And while my love of gardening started with my parents, it wasn’t until I started volunteering at an organic farm that I realized that I had the ability to grow my own food on a scale that allowed me to provide for those around us. 

Growing up in a family with nine siblings, we were like our own little sports team, and through arguments and disagreements, we each found our way to shower one another with love. 

After traveling and studying farming techniques from all over the world, I realized that plants are my unique way of showing people I care. 

Like many families, my siblings and I grew up and migrated away from the nest. We chased dreams, started families, and embarked on our own explorations. And over time, our childhood home aged with us, as the garden I had started when I was younger slowly wilted away. 

But as we all slowed down during the pandemic, our family team found itself at home base. The pandemic created a unique opportunity for my entire family, now with the addition of 13 nieces and nephews, to be together under one roof. We came together to renovate our home and breathe new life into it. And as we stripped our home down to the beams and weeded the garden, we were able to rebuild and create a safe space that served as an oasis in the midst of the uncertainty of a global pandemic.

Oftentimes, you plant a seed not knowing what is going to emerge from the soil. Sure, the packet of seeds you picked up at the supermarket might say kale but you never really know until it starts to sprout.

In that safe space, I was able to engage in some self-reflection. As I sit on our newly built deck in the garden and meditate, what arises is delicate, tender, and magnificently refreshing. Oftentimes, you plant a seed not knowing what is going to emerge from the soil. Sure, the packet of seeds you picked up at the supermarket might say kale but you never really know until it starts to sprout.

With plants, we don’t have to give too much or more than what’s needed; we just need to take the time to pay attention to its needs. The same is true with us. And as we reflect, we can begin to discover. As we take the time to pay attention to engage in a moment of self-discovery, we can begin to write our stories with authenticity and patience. 

Growing as a Community 

I teach gardening to young people and I have learned that growth is an act of love, resistance, and community. Each day I witness the magic in their eyes when they see the seeds they planted transform into juicy fruit they can enjoy. They begin to see that miracles are possible and that love can produce glorious expressions. They are more tender with this fruit they grow, with each other, and with themselves. The respect grows, and the nurturer grows. This enriches not only their lives but also the entire community. And community is an essential part of our well-being.

In the midst of the collective grief we experienced these past few years, the pandemic also gave us space for communion, organizing, empathy, understanding, and reflection. In a world where many of us were constantly on the go, we were forced to slow down (and I literally took the time to smell the roses.) We also began to understand that we are not as separate as we may have believed.

Even plants talk to each other, according to scientific study. And when certain plants brush up against another plant’s leaves or branches, according to scientists, they alter their growth strategy; they actually rein in their growth to avoid competing with one another. Another study found that dying trees will reallocate resources to nearby plants. So as we emerge from this experience, it’s essential to remember that as we grieved together—grieved the loss of loved ones, milestones, and experiences—we can also heal together. As a teacher, I have learned that it’s important to trust your heart. Plants teach us our sensitivity is a way of communicating too. Vibes don’t lie and honesty is respectable. Be true to who you are and you will always be supported by the plant world around you.

Wherever you find your healing, make sure it’s filled with self-love, care, and kindness…and maybe a few Dracaenas along the way.

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About the author

Nkoula Badila

Nkoula Badila is a multidisciplinary artist, musician, gardener, and community activist from Hudson Valley, New York. She is also the founder of Grow Black, a project created to educate Black and Brown Hudson community members about the importance, and Ancestral healing, that comes with growing their food. A strong advocate for sustainable living, Badila has Learned how to farm on many lands like Mexico, Belize, Haiti, Congo, and California giving her a wide insight into the relationship of people tending to land.

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