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The inextricable link between gardening and happiness

Garden designer Lottie Delamain explores the links between gardening and our mental wellbeing, and how the natural world can be a refuge

You’d be forgiven for thinking that the recent epiphany in gardens and mental health is a new discovery, but gardens have long been linked to good health and quiet reflection. In fact, the late 20th-century rift in our relationship with the natural world can be seen as a historical blip in an otherwise unbroken bond between man and nature. The well-documented surge in interest in the natural world during Covid was in fact a restoration of a healthier relationship that we as a society had been enjoying for centuries.

The concept of enclosure and separation from the chaos of the outside world was, and remains, central to many styles of garden across the ancient and modern world – Persian pleasure gardens, Islamic paradise gardens, Chinese courtyard gardens and Japanese rock gardens all foster a sense of seclusion and inward introspection in a tradition that predates our recent fascination with gardens by a couple of millennia.

Today, gardens are being touted as the solution to all manner of mental crises from postnatal depression and PTSD to less acute but just as tricky to solve issues such as loneliness and isolation. However in contemporary Britain, access to gardens and green spaces is becoming increasingly privileged. Where once gardens were a de facto part of both public and private properties, today land is an ever-more precious commodity, and vital community spaces such as parks, hospital gardens and school playgrounds have been sold off to make room for development, and houses with gardens have been divided up into flats. In doing so, we have lost a key resource that has been keeping us well for thousands of years.

Early records show that humans were reaping the benefits of gardens as far back as 600BC. During the Roman Empire, gardens were built as places of contemplative reflection and intellectual stimulation as well as sources of food and sustenance. With a keen eye for ornamentation and an intrinsic understanding of symmetry, Roman gardens became extensions of the house, the original outdoor rooms. They were places to rest in the heat of the day, expand your knowledge of life sciences and botany and marvel at the patterns and rhythms of nature.

After the fall of Rome, the Order of Saint Benedict took on abandoned Roman estates and developed them as monasteries. Here the link between labouring on the land and cultivating the mind became entwined as “the life of the sprit needed to be grounded in a relationship with the earth” (Sue Stuart-Smith). As well as productive orchards and vegetable gardens, a typical monastery would include enclosed spaces – hortus conclusus - for mediation and recouperation. Alongside this, the idea that fresh clean air and scent could have a powerful effect on human physiology and psychology was gathering pace.

By the Middle Ages, hospital gardens modelled on the cloister of the monastery, were seen as integral to the running of the hospital – not just to feed staff and patients, but also grow medicines and offer access to the outdoors and a space for quiet contemplation. Some of our most well-known gardens and green spaces are born of this early link between gardens and health. Chelsea Royal Hospital, home to RHS Chelsea Flower Show, was once a physic garden and apothecary dedicated to the care of the resident veteran population. Over the years, these gardens, often in prime locations, were sold off as clinical efficiency and technological medical advances took precedence.

The concept of healing garden has been revived in UK hospitals, in large part thanks to pioneering garden designer and writer, Maggie Keswick Jencks, founder of the charity Maggie’s. On being diagnosed with cancer in her forties, she was dismayed to discover the alienating and sterile hospital environments she found herself in. Convinced of the valuable role good design could play in wellbeing, she started Maggie’s a charity dedicated to creating cancer support centres that make the experience of dealing with cancer more manageable for everyone. Central to this is good design – Maggie’s centres are renowned for their world-class architecture and immersive gardens that put patient experience at the fore. Forty years on, the list of designers and architects associated with Maggie’s centres (Dan Pearson, Kim Wilkie, Sarah Price) is testament to her clarity of vision.

Today science is validating what gardeners have known for hundreds of years. One of the largest studies to date on gardens and gardening, by the National Institute for Health Research, found that the benefits of gardening were similar to the difference in health between the wealthiest people and the poorest people in the country. It reduces stress, lowers blood pressure, promotes feelings of mastery, accomplishment and competence, higher levels of self-efficacy, self-esteem, and psychological wellbeing.

But you don’t even need to physically engage with gardens for them to have a profound impact on your health. In a 1984 study, environmental psychologist Roger Ulrich showed that if all else being equal, gall-bladder surgery patients whose rooms looked out onto leafy trees and greenery (as opposed to buildings or car-parking), healed a day faster, needed significantly less pain medication and had fewer postsurgical complications. Just three to five minutes spent looking at views dominated by trees, flowers or water can reduce anger, anxiety and pain.

Studies such as these reveal how our positive association with nature is hard-wired into our brains and correspond with theories of evolutionary biology – throughout human history, trees and water have signaled oasis and calm. There is a sense of implicit trust in a natural environment which has a calming effect on our parasympathetic nervous system.

Given this compelling evidence, Horticultural Therapy is increasingly offered as a cost-effective treatment to those suffering mental health crises. The therapy might include sowing seeds, maintaining community gardens or growing and harvesting vegetables. In her book The Ballast Seed, journalist Rosie Kinchen explains of how she found solace in Horticultural Therapy, when in the throes of early motherhood, she found herself battling terrible anxiety. Despite having no previous experience with gardens or gardening, Rosie discovered “that you could interact with plants on a much more fundamental level - you could grow and care for them, read the signs of distress, enjoy it when they flourished and get better at keeping them alive. It made me more observant and more aware of the world around me”. Slowly, alongside careful observation of the natural world and the gentle rhythms of gardening and connecting to the soil, the acute anxiety lifted. With the intensity of her crisis behind her, gardens continue to play a vital role in her day-to-day mental health - “if I'm feeling stressed out or I can feel anxiety building, I know that creating time to be in the garden will do more than virtually anything else to put me back on track”.

In his recent book God is an Octopus, Ben Goldsmith talks about the profound comfort he found in nature following the tragic death of his daughter in 2019. In the midst of early bereavement, he describes the feeling of being held and supported by nature, the immense comfort it brought and a deep need to be fully immersed in the natural world in those early days. This connection we have with nature is deep-rooted and we are only just beginning to unravel the science behind it.

Ben explains, ‘We know intrinsically that closeness with nature makes us feel good. Why that is, for the most part, is beyond our understanding, although scientists uncover new fragments of knowledge with each passing year. We know now that the trees of the forest produce compounds which lower our heart rate and our blood pressure, and make us feel happy. Why they do this, we don’t know. We are part of a grand and beautiful mystery which unfurls endlessly all around us, and it is our most important task to cherish and invest in our connection with it.’ Ben’s conviction in the healing power of nature has led him to dedicate much of his working life to the preservation and conservation of threatened landscapes to ensure access for future generations.

Access is not our only barrier to nature. Steve Williams is a garden designer and co-founded landscape design studio Wild City Studio. He and his business partner Jon Davies designed The Balance Garden for the Centre of Mental Health at this year’s RHS Chelsea Flower Show. Steve believes part of the reason we have lost our connection with nature is because gardens have become intimidating spaces awash with rules and unrealistic expectations. In our very visual age, we are inundated with images of immaculate gardens that seem to be perpetually in flower with weedless lawns and enviable furniture. Steve says his goal is to “change people’s perception, shift people’s idea of what is beautiful. There’s so much beauty that can be found in neglected spaces – in textures, colours and materials. And these are much more relaxed and accessible places, that will give people the confidence to engage”.

Gardening is also a great way to build social connections. Sarah Alun-Jones, is co-director of GROW, a charity in North London teaching sustainable food growing and outdoor learning. She says “for us, food-growing is all about community”. One of the comments she hears most from the volunteers who come and help run GROW, many of whom are retired, is how much they enjoy spending time on the farm with young people – something they wouldn’t be doing in the ordinary lives – and how it makes them feel valued and useful.

Gardening often involves uncomplicated, repetitive tasks, that allow for meandering chit chat among volunteers and staff. “Gardens are a great point of connection – we often find ourselves talking about where we grew up, our childhood gardens, food we like to grow and cook… and we learn lots along the way”.

At its heart, time spent in the garden has always been about escape – from the stresses of life, from the chaos of city life, or from mental anguish. In the words of Monty Don, although we may have little control over our lives “ in the garden or allotment we are king or queen. It is our piece of outdoors that lays a real stake to the planet.”

How to integrate the natural world into your life for better mental health:

  • Lying on the grass or forest bathing: You don’t have to own a garden to reap the benefits of green spaces. Shinrin yoku, or forest bathing – simply lying on the forest floor and tuning into the sensory experience of your environment - first gained popularity in Japan and it is now routinely prescribed as a preventative medicine. Physical connection and immersion in nature, while quietly observing the sounds, smells, and sights of the forest or green space can lower cortisol production, lower heart-rate and boost the immune system.

  • Bring nature closer to home: When thinking about how to design your garden, consider your views from inside the house – what will you be looking at on those bleak February days when you need nature most? Bringing planting close to the house, so that you feel connected to it even when you’re inside is a great way get maximum benefit from your garden.

  • Community gardening: whether you have a garden at home or not, gardening with others is good for the soul. There are community gardening projects all over the country run by armies of volunteers that are always looking for willing helpers. It’s also a great way to learn about the basics of gardening – and get to know your neighbours.

  • Immersive planting: Don’t be afraid to think big with plants and narrow with paths, so that you feel fully immersed in the planting. It’s wonderful having to push through planting in the height of summer, when plants have that tall and slightly dishevelled quality about them.

  • Wilder planting: Rewilding has become a buzzword, but it doesn’t mean letting nettles take over your garden. It is about allowing a little more flexibility in your design. This could be having a designated “wild area” or allowing self-seeders to proliferate – this can all be done within the confines of a domestic garden. Leaving grass and borders uncut, allowing grasses and seedheads to stay through winter and thinking about pollinators when your choosing your plants are all great ways to allow a bit more wild into your garden without turning it over to scrubland.

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