Powerful plants – the therapeutic benefits of gardening
It is no coincidence that paradise, in several of the world’s great religions, is portrayed as a garden. There is something elemental in our relationship with nature that speaks to something very deep within us.
Until the last two hundred years or so, the vast majority of us lived on and off the land, in tune with the seasons and with the natural clock. With the industrial revolution and the move into cities our connection to the land was broken. And yet … the need to bury our hands in the soil is still there. For many of us that find fulfilment in gardening, whether we have a reasonable sized plot or just a window box. Even after nearly forty years of gardening, I still get a frisson of excitement when seeds that I’ve sown germinate, as though the universe is giving me a quick thumbs up, acknowledging my place in the circle of life.
There is a growing body of evidence that gardens are good for our health and that just being in green space benefits us physically. It lowers our heart rate and our blood pressure. One famous trial put one group of patients, post -surgery, in rooms overlooking greenery and another in rooms looking onto brick walls. The ‘greenery’ group recovered more quickly, needed less pain relief, complained less and went home sooner.
Gardening as an activity is very good for us, too. A recent study of 4,000 older people in Sweden showed that those who gardened regularly enjoyed a similar, 30%, reduction in the risk of heart attack or stroke to people who did regular formal exercise. A study done in the USA a few years ago found that gardening burned off more calories than a gym session, too. It took longer, certainly, but felt a lot less arduous, no doubt in part because exercise is a side-effect, not the main event. And with so much more that is pleasurable to distract you than MTV and other people’s fitness programmes, the time flies by.
Yet more than that, gardening benefits your mind and feeds your soul. It is one of the best stress-busters there is. Simple undemanding tasks, like watering, are perfect way to switch off at the end of a hard day, while concentrating a little harder, on pricking out seedlings, say, or deadheading the roses helps you to leave your problems behind. Who hasn’t gone out into the garden for “just for ten minutes”, only to find it’s getting dark and the family is moaning about not being fed?
So, for people with the added stresses of mental illness, learning difficulties or social isolation, horticultural therapy can be hugely beneficial. Gardening allows you to nurture living things without the sometimes unbearable weight of responsibility that a relationship with another person or even a pet can bring.
But if one–on-one relationships are too difficult, then community gardening projects, such as Livability’s Flourish project in Dorset, are particularly valuable. They provide a social framework that allows people to work on their own and yet alongside other people, towards a common goal, sharing responsibility and with as much or as little human contact as they can handle.
And for those who find it hard to look ahead with any hope, gardening is such an optimistic activity. By sowing a seed or planting a bulb you are investing in the future – a few weeks’, or a few months’, time. Gardening, unlike life, gives us all endless second chances. Those plants that didn’t do so well this year, may always blossom next year, and these others did so much better than last year.
Gardens and gardening are good for us all. Even the medical profession is starting to wake up to nature’s healing power – some GPs now even “prescribe” so many hours a week in the garden for their rehabilitating patients. Imagine if the NHS rolled out a “gardening for all” initiative. It would offer a free “anti-depressant”, resulting in a more optimistic – even joyful – society with no ill side effects.
Gay Search is a television presenter, writer and gardening and wellbeing expert. She is best known for her work on BBC’s Gardeners’ World and the groundbreaking series Front Gardens. Gay has also worked as gardening editor for Sainsbury magazine and has authored many books, including Delia’s Kitchen Garden with Delia Smith and The Healing Garden: Gardening for the Mind, Body and Soul which explores the wellbeing benefits of gardening. Gay is also an active speaker at arenas, presenting at Channel4’s ‘Grand Designs Live’ shows and is on the Royal Horticultural Society list of speakers.