It is now widely acknowledged that gardening helps us feel better, and gardens and green spaces are associated with better physical, social and mental health.
British physician Sir Muir Gray famously said that everyone needs a ‘Natural Health Service’ as well as a National Health Service. That makes perfect sense to me. What did we all turn to in lockdowns? The natural world. And I think most if not all would agree, the natural world had our backs.
This second blog in this mini-series on how nature heals is focused on how gardening helps our health. Missed the intro? Read it here.
What’s special about gardening?
Gardening has a long and connected history to science and medicine. Gardens were a source of food for our ancestors, as well as remedies to treat common ailments. Think of St John’s wort for depression and echinacea for immunity. Just last night I read about using the inner bark of a tree for headaches. Not that we should harm nature to heal ourselves.
Gardening can also help maintain independence and prevent cognitive decline. Tokyo and Exeter Universities also found robust evidence for the positive effects of gardening on health, calling for governments and health organisations to promote gardening. There’s been an exciting project in Lambeth, London, with 13 GPs opening community gardens with positive effects. As with all nature connection practices, gardening can be considered preventative medicine.
Grow Your Own, and how gardening helps wildlife too
There’s nothing like bringing a basket-full of home-grown veggies to the table or sifting through the warm soil on a summer’s day for potatoes, each one feeling like a hidden gem. Working with the soil gives benefits both instant and long-term, and you don’t need a massive amount of space to reap them.
Brassicas, for example, take some time to harvest and this group of hardy veggies includes cauliflower, broccoli and cabbage. This hardy group of nutritious vegetables is great for boosting your immune system, reducing inflammation, and reducing your risk of cancer. You can plant them now too. Read more about how wildlife gardening helps both us and our wilder neighbours here.
And, if you choose to go down the ‘no pesticides’ route (which I definitely encourage because of the harm done to wildlife and soil by pesticides), you will undoubtedly ‘experience the delights’ of the cabbage white butterfly and garden slugs. Contrary to popular opinion, slugs make up a very small percentage of a hedgehog’s diet. So, unless you have a lot of frogs and toads, my advice is that you accept that they are wildlife and have their place too. Without caterpillars… no butterflies and how rubbish would that be?!
Try setting aside some sacrificial plants and do your best for the others with nets, manual removal, and companion planting. If you have small people in your family, it’s a great opportunity to get them involved. I remember looking after collected caterpillars in a jar when I was young, and I loved being able to give Leo that same experience this year.
And I have the best hack for seed storage; use a photo album and keep all your packets neatly organised in alphabetical order and make notes in the margin! Watch the reel I posted on Instagram to see what I mean. Game changer. See more gardening hacks here
No garden? No worries
If you’ve only got a small patio, a balcony or even just a window box, there’s no need to miss out. Plant a few trailing tomato plants in a hanging basket. You may be picking these delightful little red orbs into early autumn. Strawberry plants are a great way to get children interested in growing their own too. The flowers are good for bees and insects as well.
If you’ve got a little more room, potato bags are brilliant. About the size of a kitchen bin, you can grow a couple of seed potatoes into enough spuds to feed a family for a couple of weeks. A brilliant way of getting the allotment feeling, even though you may be five floors off the ground. Remember to water regularly and you will be greatly rewarded. The bags work for sweet potatoes too.
Spending time outside is good for your bones
When you’re outdoors and your skin is exposed to the sun, it prompts your body to make vitamin D. This vitamin — also found in fish and milk — helps your body absorb calcium, a mineral essential for bone formation, according to the National Institutes of Health. Especially important in menopausal+ women who are prone to osteoporosis. For those who aren’t naturally outdoorsy or who perhaps struggle to prioritise outdoor time, you can see how gardening helps.
How gardening helps community spirit
It doesn’t take much to get bitten by the growing bug, which is why the UK has seen growing demand for allotments over the past few years. Whether you grow your own at home, or you’re part of an allotment scheme, get to know your neighbours and nurture a community spirit by sharing seeds, cuttings, seedlings, produce, tips and knowledge. You’ll soon find the green-fingered types in your area and it’s a great way to make friends.
To weed or not to weed?
A weed is a wildflower in the wrong place. It feels like there is a shift in public opinion and it is becoming accepted that native wildflowers are critical to the survival of many butterflies, bees and other insects. You know, the little guys that pollinate our plants, so we have food to eat. And those insects are an important food source for birds, dragonflies and hedgehogs… and so it goes on. Could you hand over a section of a neatly mowed lawn to the wild? It’s amazing what you find, I was gifted an orchid! Leaving just a small area of grass long and uncut can shelter wildlife as the weather cools.
If you have less coiffured areas in the garden leave the naturally occurring wildflowers there, appreciate the colours, watch the insects that come and perhaps you’ll even hope they come back next year? See how gardening helps your mental health. And if you get nettles and have an adventurous side, watch this video to make delicious nettle crisps.
Let’s talk dirty
What’s so magic about soil?
Soil provides 95% of the food we eat, for a start. It’s also home to a quarter of all Earth’s species and has the potential to store more carbon than all the world’s plants and forests combined. Which is pretty immense, I think you’ll agree?
On a smaller scale though, it’s all about the microbiome beneath our feet and in particular, mycobacterium vaccae. When handled, this bacterium triggers the release of serotonin, the happy hormone. Exposure to this mycobacterium vaccae, whether you’re working bare-handed in soil or breathing it in, is good for your central nervous system. This in turn is closely linked to your immune responses. As for your gut, a good microbiome, supported by a wide variety of bacterium, helps with balancing mood, weight, immunity, and resilience to illness.
With this in mind, care for your soil. Look after the microbes and they’ll grow you good food. A well-rotted compost can be used all year round, but in autumn approach your local farmer for some fresh manure and let it sit all winter. You can make compost using uncooked peelings, eggshells and shredded paper. Of course, if you buy compost from a garden centre, make sure it’s peat-free.
Ready to dig deep and see for yourself?
Next time you’re out and about in the garden or the woods, dig down a little, pick up some soil and examine it closely. Don’t be shy, pick up a bit more. Move the soil around a bit in your hands, getting acquainted with the feeling. Take a pinch and rub it between your thumb and
finger. There in your hand, you may see last year’s leaves in the process of mulching down into this year’s natural fertiliser. If you have a magnifying glass take a closer look and try to identify mineral vs organic. Maybe you can see a ladybirds wing or a kite’s teardrop? Engage your sense of imagination. This is the story of the circle of life right there in front of your face. Pause for a moment and reflect on that. Sift through the tiny twigs or organic fragments. Maybe you notice the textures, temperatures and perhaps there are creatures at work?
When you begin to notice nature in this way, it can invoke a sense of awe and wonder and help to put life’s inevitable ups and downs into perspective. This is how gardening helps! Take it further and lift your collection to your nose and inhale. Note your emotional response because, for some people, this can be quite strong as you reconnect with memories from childhood. Stay awhile, don’t be in any rush to leave (pun intended).
The penultimate post will be all about water and the final instalment will be on trees. Yes, I may mention tree-hugging! Catch up on the intro post here.
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About Sonya Dibbin and Adore Your Outdoors
Sonya is a qualified Forest Bathing (or Shinrin-Yoku) and Mindfulness Guide. She left her corporate life in early 2019 and now dedicates her time to helping small groups of humans rewild themselves with nature therapy.
Through guided meditations and calm invitations, she pilots them to play, experiment, photograph and explore their surroundings with a child-like fascination
She loves trees and moss with a passion and she’s proud of it. Despite not even owning a pair of wellies as a kid, she has overcome SAD (seasonal affective disorder) and even fallen in love with winter as an adult.
When she knew she was about to become a mother, she knew the best thing she could give her child was a love for all seasons – even winter.
Now she lives her dream. Spending more time outdoors, connecting with her too-often-side-lined creative side, and helping others live a happy and healthy life through nature therapy for wellbeing.