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Thursday, 11 May 2017

Gardening keeps us grounded

By Helen Roberts

Sir David Attenborough once said:
Connect with Nature in any way you can. Contact with the natural world isn’t a luxury – it is actually a necessity for all of us. All we know about the natural world gives us pleasure, delight, expertise, continuous interest throughout the year – joy on many occasions and solace on sad ones. Knowing about the natural world and being in contact with it is the most precious inheritance that human beings can have.
Even containers in small spaces help make a
connection with nature. 
It is the word ‘connect’ that is so fundamentally important in a world that often feels to many people fraught, pressured and tiring. In the ever-stressful environments that humans have to confront, be it at work or home, working in gardens for many is a tonic and a way to reconnect with the landscape. For many it brings peace, a space in which to reflect and feel restored. The physicality of gardening is not only good for the body, it is good for the soul too.

This week is Mental Health Awareness Week; a campaign set up and run by the charity the Mental Health Foundation. People across the nation will get together to discuss mental health through various activities, events, talks and sharing of stories. The theme this year is ‘Surviving or Thriving’ and seeks to look at why so few people are thriving with good mental health. The lovely illustration depicting this year’s theme is rather apt, it shows a tree or shrub growing through the words ‘surviving or thriving’. Gardening undoubtedly can make you thrive on many different levels and it certainly fulfils at least 8 out of the top 10 tips listed on the charity’s website on how to look after your own mental health.

I have seen the benefits that gardening can have on mental health through my work and teaching in horticulture. It can clearly turn people’s lives around, almost like a reset button to recharge and move positively forwards. It helps to build confidence, a sense of worth and forges new friendships and all of this happening as people begin to develop a lifelong love of gardening.

Gardening keeps you active physically, but once you get the gardening ‘bug’ it is mentally energising too. Gardening is both stimulating and relaxing (unless you are digging out a tree stump) and with it comes either peacefulness if working on one’s own or, if working with others, calm chatter. Some people loathe weeding, but I know of a great many who love it either because they can just concentrate entirely on the task at hand (like a form of horticultural meditation) or they get some good thinking done. I think some of my better ideas for writing have come to me when I have been weeding.

With regards to feeding the body, gardening to grow vegetables often means you eat well and nothing tastes better than home-grown produce. I think that people are more likely to eat healthily if they know that what they are about to eat they have put the effort into producing. As a child growing up with access to a family allotment, I was much more willing to ‘try’ a vegetable if it was something that I had grown. So in that sense it makes people more adventurous in their diet and variety is good for healthy eating.

Many of us do not have gardens big enough to grow our own food, and this could be viewed as unfortunate. But as we turn to allotments and community gardens to grow food, we find opportunities to not only reconnect with the landscape, but with people with whom we share at least one shared passion. It is an opportunity to step out of the digital confines of social media and meet with people face-to-face, or at the very least, work peacefully alongside each other in silent companionship.

One of the truly great things about gardening is that it helps to remove boundaries of age, gender and background; if you have an interest in it, then the margins of society that so often leave us feeling alienated and alone are removed. I personally have gardening friends from all walks of life, ranging in age from their twenties into their eighties. Gardening definitely has no barriers and it can be refreshing to meet people who can offer a different perspective or solution on matters (maybe not even related to horticulture). If you have a passion for gardening then you will find others that feel the same. If you garden because you love doing it, then that in itself will make you feel good, both in body and in mind.

In 2013, a review of all the scientific studies of gardening-based mental health interventions found that there was convincing evidence of its benefits. There were reduced symptoms of depression and anxiety and participants described many different emotional, physical, vocational, social and spiritual benefits. In 2015, the JointCommissioning Panel for Mental Health and the Centre for Sustainable Healthcare released a guidance document for commissioners of financially, environmentally, and socially sustainable mental health services. The guidance recommends horticulture therapy as an effective, sustainable and resilient intervention to promote mental health.

Helen Roberts is a trained landscape architect with a background in plant sciences. She is a probationary member of the Garden Media Guild and a regular contributor to the University of Bristol Botanic Garden blog.

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