Let the garden heal you

Tired and stressed out? A stint among the greenery could set you right. The regenerative power of plants can even help mental health, writes Julia Stuart
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Gardening has never been more fashionable. Egged on by the ever-growing number of popular TV shows and green-fingered types who become household names, we're rediscovering an age-old British pastime. Now there is evidence that gardening is good for your health, reducing stress levels, lowering blood pressure and even helping you live longer.

Gardening has never been more fashionable. Egged on by the ever-growing number of popular TV shows and green-fingered types who become household names, we're rediscovering an age-old British pastime. Now there is evidence that gardening is good for your health, reducing stress levels, lowering blood pressure and even helping you live longer.

Planning for the next season forces us to look positively towards the future, it is claimed. Dr Brigid Boardman, an academic and speaker for the Royal Horticultural Society, says: "Gardening helps the elderly look ahead rather than dwell on the past or refuse to hope for the future. This backward-looking tendency can too often lead to regret and grieving. But the gardener of any age is always looking ahead ­ to the next green shoot, the next bud or flower, the ripening fruit...

"Another of the great things about gardening is that it employs all the senses. As you get older the senses become more difficult to stimulate."

Dr Boardman, who is writing a book on the influence of gardens on community life, said gardening also empowered the elderly. "As we grow older there is the increasing need for dependence on others. This can lead to frustration and a longing to be in control. Whereas once we were the ones who cared, now others care for us. In both these situations the garden provides an antidote to the pain and frustration. The need to be in control is met by our control of what we plant, how we plan the garden, and how it is tended. And the need to care is again fulfilled."

Gay Search, a presenter on BBC2's Gardeners' World and author of The Healing Garden, agrees that gardening is a nurturing activity. "When you are growing plants you have to look after them. They are not as much pressure as looking after a pet, but if you don't look after plants they won't thrive and they'll die. It's a chance to be in a non-threatening nurturing relationship with something."

But it is not just the elderly who can benefit from gardening, as it offers both physical and psychological benefits to everyone. Just being in a garden can improve your health, as green spaces can have a dramatic effect on stress levels. In one study, Professor Roger Ulrich of the University of Texas exposed a set of people to a highly stressful virtual car journey. Half of the group were then taken to a green space surrounded by trees, where their heart rates and blood pressures recovered within two minutes. The other half, who were not exposed to nature, took longer to recover.

Professor Ulrich has also showed that looking at trees can help people's recovery after surgery. A group recovering from gall-bladder operations were put in rooms overlooking trees, and other patients who had had the same operation were put into rooms overlooking buildings. Those who overlooked trees recovered quicker, went home sooner, needed less pain relief and complained less.

Search claims that gardening can have other positive psychological effects. "Gardening is hugely rewarding. Even if you have been doing it for years and years, you still get terribly excited when things actually germinate for you, or when after a bad winter a plant that you thought you'd lost suddenly pokes its head through the soil. It's a validation, almost, of you as a person. You think 'Well, if plants grow for me, then I can't be all that bad really.' You have your disappointments, but unlike life, gardening gives you endless second chances. If something didn't work this year, there's always next year.

"Gardening is therapy. It's very absorbing. You go out for five minutes, and suddenly an hour-and-a-half has gone by. After a busy, stressful day it's a great escape to come home and potter about in your garden." Fragrances such as lavender, and the sound of trickling water, also add to the calming effects of gardens.

The act of gardening itself also has benefits. It is better exercise than going to the gym, said Search. "Activities such as digging and raking are good steady exercise, which burns more calories than cycling."

There are many projects up and down the country which offer gardening as a form of therapy for patients. Blackthorn Garden, a horticultural centre in Maidstone, Kent, is run by 60 people, most of whom suffer from enduring mental health problems such as depression or schizophrenia. Others have long-term physical illness such as severe cancer or multiple sclerosis.

They grow plants and flowers which they sell to the public. Their vegetables and spices are served up in the project's vegetarian restaurant, which is open to the public.

People are referred to the scheme, which started in 1991, by health professionals or the social services. Many of those accepted had been forced to give up work, and felt they had no place in society.

The director of the project, Tyno Voors, says: "The main changes we notice in the workers is that they grow in confidence and self-respect, and they feel they can make steps back into employment or education. It offers them great hope, they feel a sense of belonging and feel they are contributing to society.

"People not only work again, but they start to engage with nature, and nature nurtures them. Working in a beautiful and peaceful environment affects a person very strongly, be it often quite unconsciously. They feel relaxed, and that they are in a special place. They are also nurtured by the healthy food that comes directly from the garden, and the friends they make. They feel respected, appreciated and that they belong somewhere."

Nick Tupper, 30, from Maidstone, who suffers from mental health problems, and has been working in the garden for two years, says: "It makes me feel more of a man. It stops me feeling that I've failed, and people understand you. It's brilliant working with the plants and vegetables. When I go home I feel well, and I feel happy when I wake up the next day."

Gay Search will be appearing at BBC Gardeners' World Live 2001 at the NEC, Birmingham, which runs until Sunday

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