As the weather warms up, we’ll find ourselves spending more and more time outside, either in parks or in our own back gardens, basking in the sun. The brighter weather will also bring avid gardeners out armed with spades and an assortment of plants they’re keen to adorn their flowerbeds with.
Gardening is much more than that though. It also has a significant impact on our mental health too. The topic of mental health is a commonality within our news feeds with awareness days and events that are helping to remove the taboo status it sometimes gets. Gardening has actually emerged as an activity that can have widespread benefits to people who struggle to cope with disorders as well as protect the brain from developing diseases. Find out more below!
One way that gardening can trigger happiness is through the physical exercise we get when we spend time tending to our flowerbeds. There are countless sources that say that a low intensity activity like gardening is a great alternative to the gym given that it lasts two or three times the length of a gym session.
Alyson Chorley, the Communication and PR Manager at Thrive, a leading UK charity in disability and gardening explained that, ‘just 30 minutes of general gardening can burn up to 200 calories (depending on how physical you become and what your own weight is). Gardening is excellent for improving strength, endurance and flexibility and it can be of great help in reducing the risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, obesity and other medical conditions. Why go to the gym when there is a ‘Green Gym’ outside!’
In terms of what happens to us chemically, Chorley explained how gardening makes us happier.
‘The eminent biologist Edward Wilson says we all feel better when we’re in contact with nature and believes we all have a ‘green gene’. People who experience high levels of stress and anxiety such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia show very different behaviours in a health care setting such as a hospital compared to when they are in a garden. The physical act of gardening also causes serotonin and endorphins to be released in the body, which promote mental wellbeing, while working with plants gives us an opportunity to nurture life, which has incredible psychological benefits.’
It’s not just exercise we get when we spend quality time with nature.
The process of gardening is one that can bring a great sense of achievement and can improve your mood in a number of ways. Nicky Roeber, Online Horticultural expert at Wyevale Garden Centres says that ‘there’s a whole host of reasons why gardening is good for your mental health. It can help to give you a sense of responsibility and purpose, allows you to develop a real connection with nature, and provides you with a creative outlet. It's also a great way to relax and enjoy yourself without having to worry about the troubles of daily life, like deadlines, mortgage repayments, and problems at work.’
Michael Kelly, founder of Grow It Yourself, a not-for-profit social enterprise that are currently playing an active hand in the Sow & Grow campaign which aims to teach kids how to grow their own food and understand where their food comes from.
‘We all spend so much time up in our heads these days, almost on auto pilot instead of being mindful about what we’re doing. I think seed sowing in particular is one of those really mindful activities where you are focussed on what you’re doing. It’s impossible to become ‘lost in thought’ when you’re sowing seeds as you have to focus on what you’re doing, nudging a tiny little seed from your hand in to a little sowing pot.’
The element of relaxing can also be triggered by contact with nature according to ‘Taking part: activities for people with dementia’ by the Alzheimer’s Society. Being among plants, flowers, sunshine, the sound of water birds and animals, and natural smells, can make people feel better by reducing stress, lowering blood pressure and promoting an overall sense of well-being.’
We also use our senses when we garden, from planting scented flowers and shrubs to growing plants that are soft to the touch, which can also promote a feeling of calmness.
Getting hands on with gardening activities gives people a better sense of control over their lives, which in turn can reduce stress levels. Tasks like ‘sowing seeds and watering plants’ are good examples of this.
In addition to focusing your mind, you also become more in tune with the environment around you.
‘You settle in to a rhythm with the seasons, which is very good for your physical and mental health - eating in seasons; getting that sense of growth and renewal in spring, abundance in summer, harvest in autumn and then a gentle pause in winter,’ he said.
It may seem like you need a tonne of equipment and perfect conditions to get started but that’s not the case. The best way to begin is to simply do it.
‘Buy some seeds and some compost and a few pots and stick the seeds in - see how you go. The worst that can happen is that nothing will grow and in the grand scheme of the problems we have in the world, let’s be honest and say that’s not such a big deal! In all likelihood, you will manage to grow a plant that will produce some food and have great fun in the process,’ Kelly advises.
If you prefer a group setting to understand the basics, then why not take a short course? We have a number of gardening courses that can get you started. For the readers among you there are books that around the subject that can spark ideas for future projects.
Roeber advises starting small if you’re completely new to the world of gardening.
‘To avoid feeling overwhelmed, it’s wise to start small to begin with. For example, instead of deciding to overhaul your entire garden, start with a particular area where you can plant some flowers or shrubs that you like the look of. Varieties such as sweet peas, pansies, and nasturtiums produce beautiful flowers and are very easy to grow,’ he explained.
Once you’ve got the hang of the basics, then you can start dreaming big. During the winter months, you can retreat indoors with a book full of inspiration. With gardening, there are an abundance of books that you can choose from. The Guardian’s gardening editor, Jane Perrone, listed a few of her favourite books of 2016 that are bound to drive ideas and your imagination. Check out the full list here.
Just learning about the array of benefits has made me want to get down to my local garden centre. But don’t take my word for it. I spoke to people who are avid gardeners to get their thoughts on why they enjoy spending one on one time with mother nature.
Jason Bartner is a farmer, gardener and chef at his own farm, inn and cooking school, La Tavola Marche, which he runs with his wife in Le Marche, Italy. Running a successful business takes a lot of dedication and it is exactly this that he enjoys about gardening.
‘First and foremost, I like the commitment. I enjoy the fact that gardening is physically and mentally demanding requiring a great deal of sweat and discipline. Everyday regardless of outside influences the garden must be tended to. From planning during the winter, to harvest in the Autumn, success will be determined mostly by my daily dedication- with of course a bit of good weather and luck. I find it very gratifying seeing hard work expressed in a thriving, living, edible form. There is a very symbiotic relationship with the garden; I care for it and it will nourish me,’ he explained.
His two biggest crops are tomatoes and onions; however, his garden has expanded over the years to over half a hector, which for a couple living in the Italian countryside is perfect given the deep agricultural roots the culture boasts.
Michael Kelly found himself realising that green fingers were a complete myth.
‘Before I started growing food I had a brief flirtation with bonsai trees when I was living in apartments in my twenties. I used to kill them every time and then feel really guilty about that and berate myself for not having green fingers. But growing your own food is a life skill and like any life skill that’s worth having, it takes time to acquire it. You learn a little every year. I’ve learned a great skill that brings me joy and I’ve learned some patience and stillness at the same time.’
If you’re inspired to get started on a new gardening project now that the sun is out and about why not browse our courses if you’re a seasoned beginner, or if you simply want a refresher course, start your search now!
A Journalism graduate from Kingston University, Safeera has worked in both print and online media. When she isn't writing, you can find her working through her never ending bucket list or glued to the Formula 1.