Growing Calm - Healing gardens

The view from my window became all the more poignant during the past couple of weeks, after I found myself confined to bed with a moderate dose of the Coronavirus. Frustrated at my lack of energy to make the journey out into the garden, I had to suffice with the view of a tray of celery and broccoli seedlings on the window ledge, and the sight of the garden beyond the glass, dressed in its tantalising spring finest. The Rowan tree’s flowers emerged in creamy clusters, the bluebells and forget-me-nots covered the borders with a carpet of blue, and the sparrows kept up a merry dance between the hedgerow and the roof where little feet could be heard clattering in the eaves. At my lowest ebb, the view sustained me and motivated me to get up and better and back out in the garden. That, and the need to rescue my precious seedlings, which were in desperate need of repotting!

Many of you may recognise that the title of this blog refers to the study conducted by Roger Ulrich in the 1970’s and 80’s that concluded that patients recovering from surgery recovered more quickly and required less painkillers if they had a view of nature from their window, when compared with similar patients who had a view of a brick wall. There is an ever growing awareness that gardening is good for the ‘soul’, supporting both our mental and physical health. This isn’t a new phenomenon; as far back in history as ancient Egypt, Royal physicians would prescribe ‘a spell in the palace garden for those of troubled mind’, understanding that gardens have both calming and restorative affects. Hospitals in ancient Greece had gardens for their patients, and treatment involved time spent within them. Further studies have supported this over the years, exploring the connection that people have with nature, and the profound effect time in a garden or natural setting can have on our wellbeing.

Many of us can relate to the fact that modern life can seem relentless and exhausting at times, with the need to focus on and concurrently juggle multiple aspects of home, family and work life. The directed attention that we need to function in our busy, work-dominated society can be mentally exhausting, and it has been interesting to see how many people have taken to their gardens during this time of national, and in many cases personal, crisis as a way of relaxing and focusing their energies. Green waste collections have risen by over 250% in some areas, and the demand for seed and compost has increased massively in the past two months, demonstrating the upsurge in gardening activity.

Many people are discovering, some for the first time, the restorative effect that gardening can have. Rather than demanding our directed attention, gardens and the nature within them provide us with the opportunity to allow our minds to freely wander or focus, the involuntary attention providing us with a mental holiday from the demands of life. Watching a bee buzz amongst the flowers collecting pollen, catching sight of a dew covered spider’s web, or methodically pricking out seedlings all have the ability to take our attention outside of our heads and connect us with the world around us, providing fascination and mental respite. Even the physical exhaustion of a day’s toil in the garden is mostly a pleasant one, with aching muscles lending to a certain sense of achievement and paving the way to a good night’s sleep.

American biologist Edward Wilson coined the phrase ‘Biophilia’, meaning a love of nature, or an urge to affiliate with other forms of life, to describe the innate connection humans have with their environment. We evolved from nature, and gardening provides us with a link to our evolutionary roots, whilst simultaneously allowing us opportunities to rest, exercise, be creative, or just observe. We’ve been gardening for thousands of years – not only for food cultivation, but for pleasure, and examples of formal gardens have been discovered using carbon dating as far back as 7000 BC. Yet beyond the restorative mental benefits, there are further health benefits that are still being discovered, such as the reduction in pressure blood and increase in hormones such as serotonin and dopamine that spending time in nature can induce.

Research around the Japanese art and science of shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing, has shown not only how spending time in woodlands can reduce the levels of cortisone and adrenaline, both linked to stress levels, but also how breathing forest air can stimulate our immune system and increase our white blood count, the cells that help our bodies repair and fight disease. Gardeners know that plants have a healing effect, and this is starting to become more widely understood by science and by the physical and emotional benefits we gain by spending time in the garden or viewing nature.

It will be interesting to see how many people become converted biophiliacs due to the enforced time at home, and if the growing trend continues. In amongst the challenges that we find ourselves facing, there may be some opportunities for positive change. As for me, I’m not quite fit for digging yet, but the view from my window of potato leaves determinedly pushing up through the soil is motivation enough to get me back into the garden.

More about Rachel...
Rachel co-ordinates the Shropshire Master Composter Programme, and lives in the county with her two young boys and husband. After training as a social worker, Rachel worked in the community with young people for years before her love of gardening took over, and she retrained and combined the two. Now a part time gardener and project co-ordinator, Rachel is also restoring her own wildlife friendly garden, whilst studying Social Therapeutic Horticulture and the benefits of gardening for health and wellbeing.

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