Trade for prosperity

Gardening is good for your physical health, as well as the soul, as Michelle Higgs explains

It’s been used as a therapeutic activity for centuries, so it’s no surprise that gardening is increasingly seen as an effective form of medicine for the mind and the body. This simple, hands-on activity is accessible to all, regardless of age, gender or ability. Better still, it costs very little and sometimes nothing at all!  

Whether you have green fingers or not, gardening has a long list of benefits for your overall health. It’s a good form of exercise and it can be quite strenuous, depending on the task. Digging, raking and weeding are all great calorie burners. Who needs to pay for the gym when you can get a free workout in your own garden? 

Believe it or not, gardening outdoors in the fresh air can even help you to sleep better. Sunlight controls your body’s sleep-wake schedule. When you’re exposed to natural light outside, your natural circadian rhythm (part of your body clock) is re-set, and after the sun goes down, your brain can release the right amount of melatonin for a good night’s sleep. 

Therapeutic benefits for the mind

Gardening also has significant restorative qualities for your mental health. If you’re suffering with stress, anxiety or depression, you might find that your doctor prescribes gardening as an activity to help you manage your condition. That’s because it’s proven to increase your self-esteem, improve your mood and generally make you calmer and more relaxed. Even just looking at the green colour of trees and plants is said to relax the eyes. 

If you feel overwhelmed or low, just a few minutes sitting outside in a green space or garden while slowing down your breathing can do you the world of good. It’s also empowering because you’re taking control of the situation and recognising when you need to take a break.

Practising mindfulness is a great tool to use if you’re struggling with your mental health – and gardening is a very mindful activity. You need to be completely focused on the task in hand, whether it’s weeding, pruning or planting. As a result, you clear your mind and become less inclined to think about your own worries. Serotonin (your body’s ‘happy’ hormone) and feel-good endorphins are also released when you undertake a gardening activity, in common with other forms of exercise. 

Gardening a few times a week is the perfect way to carve out valuable time for yourself. There’s a great satisfaction and sense of purpose from working with your hands to tidy a garden and to grow and nurture plants. In doing so, you’re automatically investing in the future and thinking ahead, instead of dwelling on past or present problems. Being able to see the end result gives a real sense of pride and achievement, and of self-worth.

Many people prefer gardening when it’s warm and sunny, but gardening is an activity you can benefit from all year round. At the same time, you can watch the changing of the seasons: the first buds of spring, the blaze of colour in summer, the fall of leaves in the autumn and the frosts of winter. This will help you to really feel in touch with nature, to appreciate its beauty and experience a deep connection to it. Nature never gives up: there will always be new shoots, new buds, new life. 

How to get started

So, you’re sold on the benefits of gardening for your health, but what should you do next? If you already have an established garden, spend some time just sitting in it and deciding what work needs to be done. Does it just need tidying up or can you see a potential long-term project to get stuck in to, for example, installing a pond or building a rockery? 

Before making any drastic changes, get to know your garden in terms of its light and shade during the course of the day, and the type of soil it has. This is essential to avoid costly mistakes in buying the wrong plants that won’t do well in your particular garden. For instance, some flowers need full sunshine for most of the day while others will thrive in shady spots.

If your garden is very overgrown and full of weeds, the task of sorting it out can seem overwhelming. This, in turn, can have a negative impact on your mental health. Instead of ignoring the issue, ask friends or relatives to help you transform it to a manageable state so that you can then work on it by yourself. 

No garden?

Even if you live in a city or a flat and you don’t have a garden, you can still get benefits from gardening. Very little space is needed so try growing colourful, scented plants on a balcony, in a window box, on a front doorstep or in a hanging basket. You can also tend and nurture plants indoors, which help to purify the air in your home. 

If you’re bitten by the gardening bug and want the opportunity to do more in a bigger area, why not volunteer to help at a community garden near you? Charities such as the National Trust also need thousands of volunteers across the country to maintain their gardens. Volunteering with a group has the added benefits of learning practical and social skills, as well as connecting with other like-minded people and making new friends. It’s also a good way to learn about gardening from volunteers who may have years of exerience. 

Grow your own food

There’s nothing more satisfying than growing your own fruit and vegetables, from planting the seeds and looking after the tender shoots to harvesting a small crop and being able to eat it. And you won’t believe the difference in taste if you’re used to buying supermarket produce.

Radishes, lettuce, courgettes and runner beans are all easy to grow. Some varieties of tomatoes, strawberries and raspberries can even be grown on a small patio or balcony. You can also grow aromatic herbs to use in cooking from mint, rosemary and basil through to sage, chives and coriander. 

If you find you really enjoy growing fruit and veg but your garden doesn’t have space for a larger area, consider getting an allotment. You could even share one with friends if a whole plot seems too daunting. But be aware that allotments are extremely popular and there is a long waiting list for most sites.

7 tips for gardening success

1 To start with, keep it simple and focus on tending one small area of your garden. This makes it a manageable task so it’s more likely that you can keep on top of it, rather than being too ambitious with a larger plot.

2 If you’re a complete beginner, ask a friend or relative who knows a lot about gardening to help you. Gardening is a skill that can’t be learned overnight. In fact, experienced gardeners are constantly learning. 

3 Get inspiration from gardens in your local area; gardening books and TV programmes; and websites such as those run by the Royal Horticultural Society and Thrive.

4 Don’t rush out and buy lots of beautiful plants on impulse without first thinking where they will go in your outside space. You should always look for plants that suit the conditions of your garden, not the other way round.

5 If you attempt to grow something and it doesn’t work, try not to be disheartened. Accept that some plants won’t survive because of the particular conditions they need or if the weather is too hot, cold or wet. 

6 Do you struggle with mobility or find it difficult to bend down to tend flowerbeds? Consider introducing some raised beds and hard landscaping into your garden to make life easier. 

7 Growing plants and flowers that attract bees, birds and butterflies to your garden helps nature and the environment. By gardening, you’re helping yourself as well, so it’s a win-win situation! 

 

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