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A Snippet From The Dairy Diary 2024: Gardening – Good For Mind, Body and Soul

Gardening each day keeps the doctor away? As beneficial for the mind as it is for the body – it’s no wonder the idea of gardening for wellbeing, or ‘horticultural therapy,’ is gaining ground.

From the NHS to prisons, from schools to hospitals, gardening for wellbeing is rightfully having a moment – and you too can enjoy its benefits in your outdoor space or community garden.

A garden is, of course, a physical, tangible space – a place of sunlight, rain, wind, flowers, leaves and wildlife. It is a place where we can work our bodies through digging, watering and more; and where we can relax, too, as we sit reading in the sun or enjoy a meal outside.

But a garden is also a place that holds just as much value for the mind. In the dark winter months, we dream of gardens at the height of summer; we hungrily plan which seeds we might sow; we wonder about, imagine and think of our gardens even when we are not physically in them.

Think back to the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic: as lockdown began in Britain, online seed shops and gardening websites experienced a sudden spike in demand for their products. In times of crisis, many were turning to gardening. Unconsciously or not, they had some sense of the therapeutic value of tending to the natural world. And they were onto something…


Horticultural History

Gardens as places of refuge and healing are not a new concept. As far back as 500 BC, the Persians were creating sensory gardens that aimed to stimulate all of the senses. These spaces combined aesthetic beauty, aromatic scent, the sound of flowing water and the cooling embrace of shade.

The idea that gardening and being outside can aid in recovery, whether psychological or physical, came slightly later – William Tuke, an English Quaker and philanthropist, created what is thought to be the country’s first therapeutic garden in York in 1796. Determined to create a more humane alternative to the asylums that were the status quo at the time, inpatients at Tuke’s refuge The Retreat were invited to help maintain the garden. They grew flowers and vegetables, and spent time there recuperating.

By the 20th century, the idea of gardening as an activity with beneficial effects was established. Hospitals and clinics had begun to use gardening to help patients rebuild strength and American veterans returning from the world wars were engaged in therapeutic horticultural treatments.

Today, more and more GPs are prescribing gardening alongside talking therapy and medications for people experiencing anxiety, depression or other psychological issues. And even for those who consider themselves in fine fettle, heading outside and getting soil under those fingernails can be incredibly rewarding, and may even have a preventive effect – helping to maintain or enhance psychological wellbeing.


Why Is Gardening Good For Us?

There are many reasons why gardening is good for us – whole books could and have been written on the subject. We all know getting outside is a good way to get out of our own heads. Evidence indicates that spending time in nature reduces stress and boosts our mood. Gardening is also, of course, a physical activity. Even watering or gentle weeding gets our blood pumping, and the benefits of exercise for our moods and wellbeing are well documented.

Repetitive, mindful tasks like digging, watering and repotting are effectively a form of meditation – there’s a reason why people often say they ‘lose themselves’ in the rhythmic flow of being outside with a purpose. Carrying out precise tasks with our hands also forces us to focus on the present, helping to pull us away from focusing on any worries inside our heads.

At the same time, the very act of gardening is an investment in the future. There’s a reason why, almost unbelievably, soldiers in the First World War created gardens in the trenches behind the front lines. Perhaps they wanted a reason to believe in and look forward to a future beyond conflict. After all, a large part of the thrill of sowing a handful of seeds is in the anticipation. What will they become? Will they thrive? A garden never rests and Mother Nature stops for no one – there’s always something to occupy yourself with when it comes to plants, and this can be very motivating.

When we become absorbed in a task – whether it’s digging holes to sow seeds or pruning a shrub – the way we experience time shifts, putting us in touch with the continuity and fleetingness of life. It can help put things in perspective. Gardening is also a relationship – between us and nature. We’re not creating something from nothing, as with some creative pastimes – instead, we’re working alongside the natural world to unlock its potential.


The Science

Research backs up these ideas. A study has shown that every £1 spent by the NHS on gardening projects equates to £5 in saved healthcare costs.* Research by the University of Bristol also helps explain some of the therapeutic effect of gardening. Thanks to the discovery of a ‘feelgood’ microorganism in the soil (Mycobacterium vaccae) that is thought to stimulate the release of serotonin.

Looking at plants, too, boosts our sense of wellbeing – one study found that adding plants to a previously bare front garden had the same effect of reducing stress as a course of mindfulness sessions. And patients staying in hospitals after surgery recovered more quickly if they had a view of trees from their window.

Eight in ten people in the UK live in a home with its own private garden, and many more have access to a balcony, terrace or shared outdoor space. Gardening for wellbeing is something you can even do on a windowsill. This makes it really accessible.

You can also look into getting involved in a local community garden or project – you might be surprised by how many volunteer groups and charitable organisations there now are aiming to help us all feel better via gardening. Getting involved with projects in your local area also comes with its own benefits for our mental health – there’s an opportunity to meet like-minded souls, reduce feelings of isolation and learn new skills, as well as feeling connected to our surroundings.

Are you convinced? Perhaps you’ve always loved gardening, and already know it makes you feel good. Perhaps you are coming to it anew, or returning after a long break. Wherever you are in your gardening journey, it is almost certainly doing your brain good. We evolved in tandem with the natural world so it’s hardly surprising that we gravitate towards, and find meaning in, tending the soil. What may surprise you though is how wonderful it can make you feel – grounded, present, connected, creative and well.

*Research by the RHS


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