Before re-training as a garden designer, I commuted to London for a long, tiring day in the city. What kept me sane was coming home to a garden. It did not matter that I did not have time to do everything in it I wanted to do, but to spend half an hour after work enjoying the last of the sunshine, potting on a few plants, weeding and deadheading all provided a few minutes of calm and relieved some of the stress that had built up during the day. It was not only being in nature, among the trees and flowers and birds, it was also the physical nature of the activity, and the sense of purpose and achievement.
There is now lots of scientific evidence that proves how gardens and gardening are good for mental, physical and social wellbeing:
• Nature can heal. Pilot schemes in the UK which prescribe time gardening or walking in nature have found that this can be more effective than some conventional medicines in treating high blood pressure and depression.
• Buildings negatively affect us. Spending more of our time either surrounded by buildings or indoors negatively affects our physical and mental wellbeing but spending just five minutes in nature can lower stress and anxiety, improve mood and lower both blood pressure and heart rate.
• Soil can be good for you. We all have multitudes of microbes living in or on our bodies. These perform vital functions like aiding digestion and keeping our immune system healthy. These microbes can be passed to us through contact with soil. Many scientific studies have shown a clear link between childhood exposure to microbes in the soil and food, and higher immunity rates as adults. What better excuse to go outside and start gardening? (nB You should wear gloves if you do not know what is in the soil or have scratches or cuts.)
• Plants cool us down. We are already experiencing many more extremely hot days than we used to and these are set to be more frequent and more intense. These heatwaves are uncomfortable and even life-threatening to some people and negatively affect those of us who work outside. The heat is exacerbated by the many hard surfaces around us like buildings, paving and roads which raise the air temperature even more. However, we can use plants and trees to combat this to some extent. The shade cast by a tree can create ground conditions which are 12 percent cooler than that in the sun. This is not only useful for us but vital for the wildlife in our gardens. By covering walls with climbers this can also keep a building cool by shading it from the sun.
• Gardening can make us feel better. Nurturing a green space provides us with a sense of ownership, something we can have responsibility for and take control of. All of these things help us feel more positive and can boost confidence. You can personalise your space, overlaying your own identity onto the garden with your choice of garden style, materials, and plants. You can make mistakes in a safe space, learn from them, and try again the following year. Growing food can be particularly rewarding as you feel as though you are doing useful work, and you gain an understanding of the seasons.
• Gardening connect us with nature and the cycle of life. Sowing seeds and watching them grow, flower and recede, adding them to your compost bin for the worms and micro-organisms to break them down, making compost that you can add to the soil for you to grow more plants, and the cycle starts again. Watching this cycle helps us understand the cycle of nature and our own transient place in it.
• Keeping us active. The physical work of gardening keeps our bodies moving, improving strength and flexibility whatever our age.
• Water is relaxing. Water in the garden can make you feel more relaxed, particularly if there is a flow of water. Even a simple bowl of still water adds light and reflections. It has the added benefit of bringing in wildlife for you to enjoy.
• The beauty of wildlife. Hearing birdsong and watching wildlife can have a restorative effect on us. Increasing the amount of plants in the garden and adding water can encourage many different forms of wildlife from bees and butterflies to a variety of birds and small mammals.
I have listened to many people talk about how they have enjoyed being in their gardens or allotments during the last few months of restrictions, from growing veg for the first time to enjoying listening to the birds and watching the wildlife. I do hope that we, as a nation, continue to garden as there is so much benefit to be had, and a renewed connection to nature for us all can only be a good thing.