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Feeling blue? Then it’s time to get out in the garden and lose yourself among the pots and plants, says horticultural therapist Ed Bowring...
Shielding last year due to health issues and being unable to work, I, along with much of the country, turned to my garden. Weeding, mowing, sowing and pruning became the family’s favourite activity; the garden provided an engaging and muddy escape from the stifling indoors and endless coronavirus news updates, and became a healthy focus for us all. And we were not alone.
There was a staggering uptake in gardening in 2020. As Britain entered lockdown last March, the demand for horticultural supplies rocketed, with garden centres selling out of compost within days and online garden supply firms announcing record sales. According to Cary Cooper, professor of psychology and health at the University of Manchester, we shouldn’t be surprised that lockdown led so many of us to take comfort in our gardens. ‘Think where we come from as human beings and our historical past,’ he says.
‘We lived in nature and we still have that need for nature in our lives.’ Whether for pleasure, necessity or a mixture of the two, people have gardened since civilisation began. And as countless generations of gardeners can testify, from the first allotments of the late 18th century to the trench gardens of the first world war, gardening can not only be immensely enjoyable, but therapeutic as well. I come from a long lineage of gardeners, but it wasn’t until I faced my own battles with cancer and arthritis that I truly recognised the benefits of gardening, both physically and mentally. In fact, the benefits were so profound that I decided to leave my job in occupational therapy and retrain as a gardener and horticultural therapist, working with those who live with disabilities and ill health or are experiencing social isolation.
It’s work that’s much needed. Mental health conditions, including anxiety and depression, have become more common since the early 1990s, a trend which intensified during the pandemic. The charity Mind (mind.org.uk) published research which noted that: ‘More than half of adults and over two thirds of young people said that their mental health has worsened during the period of lockdown restriction,’ and that even those without previous problems had seen their emotional wellbeing decline.
It’s sobering stuff, and the reason, I suspect, that many gardeners rely on the healing medium of horticulture to ward off low mood and anxiety. Why? Well, the garden is dependable; even when life around us gets turned upside down, nature carries on faithfully. The sense of achievement gained by seeing a plant, carefully nurtured from seed, finally flower; the joy of seeing our six-year-old devour a whole cucumber straight off the vine – these are life-affirming moments. Even the simple task of deadheading flowers can encourage hope; the removal of the old blooms making way for new life.
I have found that even a gentle potter around the garden, mug of tea in hand, can help promote a sense of calm and perspective. And my personal experience – and those of my clients and colleagues – chimes with a 2016 report commissioned by the National Garden Scheme, which stated: ‘The mental health benefits of gardening are broad and diverse. Studies have shown significant reductions in depression and anxiety, as well as improving mood and self-esteem and reducing stress.’
But gardening isn’t just good for our mental health; it has huge physical benefits as well. From exercise to eating healthy, home-grown produce, horticulture has a positive effect on our bodies. We all know exercise is good for us – and what better way of achieving this than by improving the outside space at home or volunteering in a community garden with others?
The power of plants
If physical constraints rule out labour- intensive gardening, simply being around plants can have potent benefits. A US survey of hospital patients found that 79% felt more relaxed, 19% felt more positive, and 25% felt refreshed and stronger after spending time in a garden. Fran Bailey, author of The Healing Power of Plants (Pop Press, £12.99), says: ‘Even when we are unwell, being in close proximity to plants can facilitate healing and improve Health wellbeing.’
Our environments are so important to our health, surely we should do all we can to help make them as beneficial as possible? Turning to gardening in times of need isn’t new. John Lewis-Stempel, author of Where Poppies Blow (Orion, £9.99), describes how a journalist travelling along the trenches of the first world war saw ‘repeated sights of a little vegetable garden, and next to it for beauty’s sake a flower garden’, all planted with seeds sent from home. These gardens provided soldiers with a vital reminder of the life they left behind, an escape from the horrors of war and a sign of hope and the future.
After a long, Covid-restricted winter, early spring is thankfully upon us. And as bulbs rise defiantly and the soil begins to warm up, now is the perfect time to make a start on the growing season ahead. Preparation today – such as sowing sweet pea, nigella or cosmos seeds, cleaning out the greenhouse, reseeding bare lawn patches, mulching borders and repotting plants – will pay dividends in our gardens later in the year.
And if you’ve neglected your garden over winter, fear not. There is no better time to start reviving or creating a beautiful space that you can not only take delight in, but reap great mental and physical health benefits from, than the months ahead.