Horticulture: growing better
A well-tended garden is one of life’s great pleasures and gardening is a hobby that can be enjoyed at any age. As long as you work at your own pace, says Karin Mochan.
As the first signs of spring arrive – with bulbs starting to show – your garden will welcome a little TLC. February is the time to prune shrubs, climbers such as wisteria and evergreen hedges. Then, in March, there are seeds to be sown, winter shrubs to be cut back and general sprucing up to be done.
For the green-fingered among us, these nurturing instincts not only bring much pleasure but health benefits, too. Want to live longer? Get digging! In a study published in November 2012, America’s National Cancer Institute found that taking up a hobby involving a good level of physical activity can extend life expectancy by up to four-and-a-half years. Generally speaking, the more active you are, the longer you can hope to live.
Gardening is also known to be good for the soul. Mind, the UK-based mental health charity, used Lottery funding to create 130 “ecotherapy” projects. These included horticultural and agricultural schemes, walking groups and regeneration projects in local parks.
“Research shows that exercise can be as effective as antidepressants in treating mild to moderate depression and anxiety,” explains Stephen Buckley, information manager at Mind. “Getting away from modern life and into a relaxing outside space allows us to switch off from everyday pressures and can reduce stress and symptoms of depression, as well as allowing us to connect with people and nature.”
The findings of the charity’s Ecominds programme backed this up – with participants reporting an increase in wellbeing of 17 per cent and self-esteem of 11 per cent. After only one ecotherapy session, more than half noticed an improvement in their health, on average experiencing a boost of 31 per cent.
“Gardening combines light exercise with the outdoor environment and so provides a great alternative to traditional sports or exercise,” says Stephen. “The colours, sounds and smells we find outdoors stimulate our senses in a way that the gym or urban environments don’t – and so exercising outdoors can be better than working out inside.”
Make the most of gardening
Whether you’re growing veggies on an allotment, taming herbaceous borders in your garden or simply tending a few pots of herbs or sunflowers – there’s a genuine feeling of satisfaction and achievement when your plants flourish.
It can be frustrating, then, if an injury, a long-term health condition or, indeed, the march of time start to come between you and your gardening. If you’re finding it harder to really get your hands dirty and put your back into it, you could try demanding a little less of yourself. Take things easier and listen to your body, so that you can stop before you push yourself to exhaustion or a pulled muscle. By setting yourself the right pace, you should still reap the benefits of some gentle exercise.
Gillian Verrall is a horticultural therapist working with Thrive, a charity that uses gardening to actively help people living with chronic conditions or disabilities. She explains that this type of therapy has been around for centuries. It wasn’t until the 20th century, however, that it became more structured, and social and therapeutic horticulture (STH) was born.
“Gardening or horticulture is used in occupational therapy, whereby specific activities are used to help people reach their maximum level of function and independence in their daily life,” says Gillian. “The rationale being that we humans benefit when engaged in meaningful activity.”
For gardeners whose health issues are making it harder to enjoy their hobby, there are clever ways of making things more manageable. Think about the job being done and plan how you’re going to tackle it. For example, get all your tools together to save trips back and forth to the shed.
“It might be as simple as making sure you have a kneeler with you or a stool or seat to work from and take rests,” says Gillian.
“There are lots of ideas, such as using raised beds, and lightweight or long-handled tools. However, gardening is a form of exercise and it is important people work at their own pace, doing as much or as little as they like, and getting a sense of achievement from the results.”
- Reduce areas that require frequent maintenance, such as lawns.
- Design your garden around hard surfaces (patio, paths) which require little maintenance.
- Use “no dig” methods if you have a vegetable patch.
- Mulches of bark, plastic or gravel will discourage weeds and conserve moisture in the soil.
- Choose your plants with an eye on their future size, to avoid longer-term maintenance issues.
- Line containers and hanging baskets with plastic to help prevent them from drying out.
- Choose climbing plants that are self-clinging – no support is required and you won’t need to keep tying them up.
- Replace hedges with fences.
Visit www.thrive.org.uk for more practical tips to make gardening easier.
This article first appeared in benhealth magazine (issue 30, spring 2015).