How to harness the power of garden therapy for good health

Discover how to harness the power of garden therapy for good health

It has been said that in order to discover your true passion and meaning in life, you should try to recall how you spent your time when you were 11 years old. At that age, you had the independence to make your own choices about your activities, before social and family expectations directed you towards good grades and life skills.

Indoors as an 11-year-old, I loved to be engaged with words, shapes and colours, but my greatest joy was to be outside in the garden or nearby parks, revelling in the wonder of nature. I loved identifying a tree from its leaf and seeing how the leaf’s shape often resembled the shape of the full-grown tree; watching the development of a tadpole into a frog; moulding a handful of clay soil into shapes, like with plasticine. It’s no surprise that as an adult I became a passionate gardener.

The backyard

When the house next door to my current home was sold and the demolition began, I was sad to witness the destruction of what had been home to many people over the course of 80 years. But one morning I left home for a few hours and returned to find the neighbouring garden, with its decades’ worth of trees and plants, had also been destroyed. I felt as bereft as if a death had occurred.

Gardening promotes wellbeing by increasing optimism and zest for life as well as improving self-esteem, physical health and the sense of community.

Three years later, a “French provincial” mansion occupies nearly the whole block, with the exception of what Melbourne University architecture professor Philip Goad calls “a small cemetery at the front”. How apt that is, as a memorial to the traditional backyard where children played, families relaxed, neighbours interacted and wildlife thrived.

This “disturbing trend where outdoor amenities have all but disappeared” was highlighted by Tony Hall in his book The Life and Death of the Australian Backyard. Aerial photographs illustrate the dramatic nature of the change in the suburbs, where the house, and not the garden, dominates. In the 1930s, houses typically occupied 26 per cent of a domestic plot. Today, the house is palatial and the garden almost non-existent. With increasing urbanisation, even a patio garden is becoming a rarity as apartments take the place of the traditional suburban home.

Hall links the shrinking of backyards and the 40 per cent increase in the footprint of the average dwelling over 20 years to the changing lifestyle from the early 1990s: “an outward physical manifestation of profound social and economic changes in Australian society”. The attitude to property has shifted from considering it a place of enjoyment to a financial investment, measured in terms of monetary gain rather than enhanced quality of life, he says.

Larger gardens demand a lot of time and energy. But so does visiting the gym and the shopping mall and fuming in traffic jams on the way to work. What price are we paying in terms of our health for this relentless conspicuous consumption? What effects are our built surroundings of brick and concrete, metal and plastic, really having on us? And are we as well adapted to our urban lifestyles as we believe?

Connection to nature

You can probably identify with the sense of relief that’s felt when you temporarily escape outdoors to stretch your legs, breathe fresh air and look at something other than a flickering screen. Research suggests we could be tapping into a fundamental, even primitive, need to connect with the natural world.

Edward O Wilson introduced and popularised the idea of “biophilia” 30 years ago. He suggested that our evolutionary history has instilled in us an instinctive need to connect with other living things and the belief that gardening improves wellbeing and quality of life because working with plants fulfils an inborn and essential need to connect with the living world. He wrote: “Since we human beings have spent the vast majority of our time evolving on the African savannah we are genetically predisposed to associate its unique features (trees, openness and grassy ground) with survival.”

Gardeners tend to eat more fruit and vegetables and, because the produce is consumed within minutes of picking, the vitamin and mineral content is not diminished.

More than half of the world’s population now lives in an urban environment, but even the citizens of the ancient and mediaeval worlds had daily contact with the dirt and confusion of animals and food production. Today, we have a horror of grime and disorder and are exhorted constantly by advertisers to wash, clean and deodorise.

But the hunter-gatherer is still there, just below the surface of our 21st century scrubbed and polished veneers. I’m not suggesting you pack your bags and return to the savannah, but for your mental and physical health it helps to find a way to satisfy the instinct to dig in the dirt and connect to the natural world.

In a 2014 article, Arie T Greenleaf (aptly named) and others reported that being in the presence of plants may have many psychological, physical and social benefits that go beyond meeting basic needs. Gardening promotes wellbeing by increasing optimism and zest for life as well as improving self-esteem, physical health and the sense of community.

Gardeners routinely report similar positive benefits from their interaction with plants, including increased social cohesion, a sense of accomplishment and pride, improved mental concentration and self-confidence, reduced stress levels and a quicker recovery from physical injuries.

Gardening for longevity

Research has found that gardeners live 14 years longer than average. I have personally known several people who gardened all their lives and lived well into their nineties. As well as their physical abilities, their social and mental powers remained undiminished.

There could be many reasons for gardeners’ impressive record, but when explorer Dan Buettner teamed up with National Geographic to research longevity, he found five Blue Zones — areas in the world where 10 times as many people reach the age of 100 than in the US. A common factor was lifelong physical activity and a plant-based, largely locally grown diet.

In Okinawa, Japan, almost all centenarians grow or once grew a garden. It’s a source of daily physical activity for the body and helps reduce stress. It’s also a near-constant source of fresh vegetables. On the Greek island of Ikaria, around one in three of the inhabitants live into their nineties. They traditionally have farming or fishing jobs and live in a mountainous terrain, which keeps them active throughout life.

Gardening will save you thousands of dollars in gym fees, but it’s not just the exercise that contributes to improvements in health. Gardeners tend to eat more fruit and vegetables and, because the produce is consumed within minutes of picking, the vitamin and mineral content is not diminished. Deficiencies in vitamins and minerals can lead to serious health problems, but good levels can keep your hair shining, your eyes sparkling and your skin glowing.

There is extensive evidence for the value of spending time in natural surroundings, particularly in overcoming depression and anxiety. Deakin University conducted a study for the charity beyondblue into the benefits of contact with nature for mental health and wellbeing, and Therapeutic Landscapes outlines many studies into the therapeutic benefits of gardens.

A Netherlands study of two groups of people found that 30 minutes spent gardening resulted in lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol than the same time spent reading. In 1992, Japanese researchers R. Nakamura and E. Fujii used an electroencephalogram (EEG) to measure the brain activity of people viewing a hedge of greenery or a concrete fence. The results of the EEG showed, not surprisingly, that the greenery produced relaxation, whereas the concrete elicited a stress response. A study in Norway even found that symptoms of depression were significantly reduced in people who spent six hours a week gardening.

A natural healer

All this research is leading to increasing recognition of the significant benefits to be gained from reconnecting with nature. Ecotherapy is a recently developed program with such proven results that clients are usually referred to the scheme by their GPs. It has had success in improving individuals’ lives and at the same time producing social and economic benefits.

The Natural Growth Project in London combines horticulture with psychotherapy and facilitates the growth and healthy development of Freedom from Torture clients. Many torture survivors have difficulties talking about their past experiences, or the uncertainty and difficulties of their present. For some of the most physically and mentally damaged clients, being in the open and in touch with the elements can bring instant relief and can open the path to extraordinary change.

A plot of land was transformed into a dedicated and secure sanctuary, designed for clients at all stages of recovery and physical health. There’s also a small area where they have planted memorials to loved ones they have lost.

Participants have said: “Walking into this garden is like walking into the arms of my mother.” “This garden is my home. I am mayor here.” “I tried antidepressants but nothing seemed to keep the memories away. Everything was darkness. Then I came here and I am at one with the earth. There is no evil in the garden.”

If the therapeutic benefits of gardening can have such a powerful effect on people who have been traumatised by the horrors they have witnessed, think of the effects it could have on stress, burnout, anxiety and depression.

Gardening offers not only an improvement in your personal wellbeing but also the feel-good factor of knowing you are helping the health of the planet. Research by CERES, a sustainability centre in Melbourne, found that a typical basket of goods from a supermarket had travelled a total of 70,000km. They also discovered that shipping strawberries from Chile to the US consumed six times more energy than the nutritional energy of the fruit.

In addition, the excessive land clearances for farming, often to raise cattle, are believed to have an impact on the world’s climate. By trading some of our meat consumption for home-grown fruit and vegetables, you will be reducing the burden on the planet.

Coming to our senses

Going back to our days on the savannah, our highly developed senses were an essential part of our survival strategy. If you think about being in natural surroundings, all five senses are stimulated: the sight of colour, shapes and movement; the sound of birdsong and the rustle of leaves in the trees; the feel of the breeze and the sun on your skin; the smell of eucalyptus or blossom; and the taste of fresh, cool air. Compare that experience to being indoors with the hum of an air-conditioner, the images on a flickering computer screen, the smell of a photocopier’s chemicals and the taste of a plastic cup from the water cooler.

Perhaps the sensual delight of communing with nature is not the only reason for raising the spirits. Therapeutic Landscapes reports that “research on rats has found that Mycobacteria vaccae, a bacterium commonly found in soil, triggers the release of serotonin, a hormone that decreases anxiety and depression, elevates mood and improves cognitive function. The findings have intriguing implications for how active engagement with soil could play a more direct physiological role in people’s health.”

Before you head to the gym to counter the effects of sitting at your desk all day, or to a shopping centre to find something to fill a space in your life, or reach for that glass of wine to relieve the stress of commuting, try stepping outside into your own backyard. You may find the solution has been right under your feet the whole time.

Garden therapy for urban dwellers

  • Read Indira Naidoo’s gently humorous book The Edible Balcony for inspiration.
  • Find a plot in a community garden.
  • Offer to care for a neighbour’s garden.
  • Volunteer for a local environmental project.
  • Start small and grow herbs on your kitchen windowsill.

Julia Bourne

Julia Bourne

As well as being a keen gardener, Julia Bourne is a Melbourne-based freelance writer and editor.

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