I’ll let you in on a secret. Every Friday night I indulge in one of my guilty pleasures. There is nothing quite like staying in and immersing yourself in the soothing tones of Monty Don on Gardeners’ World. It turns out I am not the only one. During the pandemic, many of us are turning to our gardens in search of a green cure. It’s not just the more seasoned gardeners among us; the pandemic has provided fertile ground for a new crop of budding gardeners who are getting their hands dirty for the first time.
The concept of a garden as a healing space has a long history. Japanese zen gardens have inspired a meditative calm for centuries while monastic cloister gardens date back to the medieval period. Now more than ever, our gardens offer us sanctuary from a frightening and unstable world. During the pandemic, many of us have struggled with negative emotions such as stress, frustration and anxiety. Yet these seemingly unfavourable conditions have sown the seeds for a renewed appreciation of the positive effects of nature on our well-being.
According to an RHS commissioned survey, 7 out of 10 of us consider that having a garden has helped our mental health during the lockdown. Immersing ourselves in the natural world acts as a salve for the mind. This explains the growing interest in the Japanese concept of forest bathing at a time when many of us are looking for a retreat from our frenetic lives. More than just a trend, there is evidence from clinical trials that exposure to natural environments can have a measurable impact. When we spend time in nature, we breathe in chemicals called phytoncides which can lower our levels of cortisol and the effects of anxiety and depression; as little as 20 minutes can make a difference.
It is becoming increasingly common for doctors to refer someone struggling with depression to a community gardening group as part of their recovery. Incredibly, researchers have found that a particular type of bacteria present in soil can stimulate the production of serotonin – the happiness hormone. Breathing in the soil while gardening can have a similar effect to taking antidepressants.
There is science behind the relaxing effect that being in natural environments can have on us. Many plants have repeating patterns called fractals with examples being the patterns in ferns or the veins on a leaf. The brain can process these patterns easily and they have a soothing effect, activating similar parts of the brain to the areas involved in listening to music.
At a time of unprecedented social change, many people are reflecting on what is important in their lives. Increases in remote working and the rise of the Zoom social have left many of us yearning for a greater sense of connection. Gardening can help give that sense of connection to nature; you can’t beat getting your hands in the soil for feeling grounded.
Many of us are discovering that gardening can help create a sense of purpose. Through tending and nurturing our plants we feel a sense of responsibility towards them and we are rewarded when our efforts come to fruition. When we sow seeds or plant bulbs, we do so with a sense of hope for the future and the new life that may bring.
Before the pandemic, I confess that I found weeding a bit of a chore. I would never have guessed that I would come to enjoy it. The reason for this has not simply been my lack of social life during lockdown; weeding offers a fantastic opportunity for mindfulness practice. Simple, repetitive physical tasks such as deadheading or pruning help to focus the mind and enable us to enter a flow state. Gardening chores can be the perfect antidote to a busy day at work.
Even the most humble of gardening jobs can help us feel connected with much deeper cycles. When we bring in the harvest, we engage in a ritual that has gone on for centuries before us and will go on beyond us – and there is great comfort in that. This year more than ever I’ve noticed the changes of the seasons. Spending time in the garden can provide a powerful reminder of the passing nature of things and how this connects to the broader cycles of nature. We may feel melancholy at the falling of autumn leaves but this is necessary to generate the energy for new growth in the spring. Nature is a great philosopher; gardening can help give us a sense of perspective on the difficulties we face.
When we feel at a low ebb, gardens offer us unexpected glimpses of beauty which can lift our spirits. Whether it is the patter of raindrops on a pond or the heady scent of jasmine on a balmy summer evening, we interact with our gardens with all our senses. This can often trigger emotional resonances and memories. For example, the fragrance of lavender might transport us back to a holiday in the Mediterranean. Best of all, for armchair gardeners, we don’t even have to lift a finger, studies show we can reap benefits just from looking out and enjoying it.
Louise Bond has several years of experience working in healthcare transformation and is excited by opportunities for more preventive approaches.