Gardening For Physical and Mental Health
Gardening is one of the very few activities which engages all the senses and which can give a decent amount of exercise, the level of which can be varied to suit your physical condition. These days, very few people have large gardens at home, but those who have a craving to tend them can often join volunteer groups which manage communal gardens. These can be anything from designated areas in city parks to grounds in stately homes.
These days, however, many people focus on gardening in smaller space. These can be anything from a tiny outdoor space with proper soil, to a balcony or terrace or even a window box or hanging baskets. If you can find a space for a container of soil and you can access the container for watering, then you can have a garden for beauty, for food or to help out the local wildlife (especially the bees).
Even if you can’t, you can still have a garden, just bring it into your home. At the very least you can grow some of your favourite herbs for the kitchen.
Gardening for Physical Health
While a lot of the conversation around gardening revolves around its (many) benefits for mental health, there’s a lot to be said for its benefits for physical health. It’s also worth remembering that although good physical health does not guarantee good mental health, poor physical health can have a serious impact on your mental health. With that in mind, here are some ways gardening can help your physical health.
Provides gentle cardio
Many times gardening can be as intensive or gentle as you want it to be. If you want it to be intensive, go for manual tools. If you want it to be gentle, use power tools, get help and/or design your garden so that it requires minimal effort to maintain.
Keeps you (fairly) flexible
Gardening encourages you to keep using a wide range of movement, e.g. bending, stretching and turning, but lets you do so at your own pace, instead of having to keep up with a class.
Gets you outdoors
If you can do your gardening outdoors, then you can benefit from being out in the fresh air and daylight. The latter is a useful source of vitamin D, which scientists have recognized as providing a number of health benefits, including helping to maintain calcium levels. This becomes increasingly important as we age and our bones become more brittle.
Can help you sleep better
After you’ve spent some time working in the garden, you’ll have burned off quite a bit of energy and also destressed. This combination is about as good as it gets when it comes to getting some decent sleep and scientists agree.
Can improve your diet
If you can grow your own food not only do you not have to worry about needing to buy it but you know exactly what it is and under what conditions it was grown. You also get the ultimate in freshness, you can literally pick what you need, prepare it as you wish and eat it.
Gardening for mental health
Gardening is recognized as offering a wide range of mental-health benefits. Here are just a few of them.
Helps to reduce stress
Gardeners themselves have long reported that gardening helps relieve their stress, but up until recently, there was nothing in the way of scientific evidence to back that up. A recent study in the Netherlands, however, has finally provided experimental evidence to support the belief.
Helps to combat loneliness
There’s a strong link between loneliness and poor health and so anything which reduces feelings of loneliness, isolation and exclusion generally has a health benefit. While communal gardening brings obvious socialization opportunities, even those who do their gardening by themselves increase their opportunities to chat with others, whether that’s over the fence or just going online to chat with other gardeners. It may not be as good as real-world interaction, but it can be a whole lot better than nothing.
Helps to reduce the risk of dementia
Dementia is a very complicated disorder, but lifestyle is known to be a factor in it. Any form of exercise appears to be beneficial and according to a study in Australia, gardening is particularly beneficial.
The three fundamentals of gardening
There are three big differences between gardening and many other activities. The first is that it is super-important to familiarize yourself with the exact conditions in your garden before you make any changes to it. The second is that you may have very little control over the key factors which influence how your garden grows and the third is that gardening is a slow process. Let’s have a look at what this means in practice.
Getting to know your garden
There are many factors which will influence what you can do with your garden, the most important ones include: soil type (pH and level of drainage), local climate, orientation and nature of landscape, local rules and safety considerations and size. Note how size is last on the list.
It’s important to go through this process even if you hate something about a garden (for example, you’ve taken it over from someone who had very different taste). This will help reduce the likelihood of you going through a lot of work to make a change only to discover that there was actually a reason why the previous homeowner did what they did and you will have to come to an alternative solution.
Working within your garden’s limitations
With regular outdoor gardening, there’s a distinct limit as to how much control you will have over the key variables listed above. If you’ve set your heart on growing a plant which really isn’t intended for your local area, then it’s very likely that your only option would be to put it in a container and you might even have to create a special environment for it, such as a cold frame or greenhouse.
You could make a very strong case for arguing that, in some ways at least, indoor gardeners have more freedom of choice as they have a greater degree of control over the environment in which their plants grow.
Learning the value of patience
A lot of gardening activities proceed at a slow pace. While the likes of mustard and cress grow at the sort of rate which can be easily seen and understood by children, plants grown from seed generally often take the better part of a year to show any meaningful results and some plants can take several years to reach their full glory.
Getting the most from your garden
With all that said, most gardeners will be able to create a garden they love, even if it’s only a small one, as long as they’re prepared to work at it (and be patient). Here are some tips.
Get organized with a garden planner
Garden planners are far more than gimmicks. They are a great way to keep on top of everything to do with your garden. You could argue that they’re essential for managing larger gardens, and/or gardens which are meant for productivity, and they can be very handy for indoor gardeners. If nothing else, they can provide an easy reference for anyone who needs to take care of your plants if you go away for a while. You can buy them in paper and digital versions. The latter can be very handy as they can integrate with useful data sources, like weather sites, or you could just make your own.
Decide what you personally want from your garden
If you want an outdoor “living space”, then you’ll want to prioritize an open space, like a lawn, and you’ll probably want some garden furniture even if it’s only a (storage) bench and perhaps a table. If you add a bit of shelter, such as a canopy, plus a garden heater, you could potentially enjoy your living space at least from early spring to late autumn and possibly even in winter as well.
If you want a kitchen garden, then prioritize foods which are expensive and/or hard-to-find and learn how to preserve them effectively and healthily so you can avoid having to buy out-of-season foods, which are imported from overseas. This can help your wealth as much as your health. It’s good for the environment too.
If you want a garden purely for beauty and relaxation, then try prioritizing plants which are native to the UK and, ideally, found in your local area. These will not only have the best chance of success in your garden, but will also be non-invasive and are more likely to be appreciated by the local wildlife.
Whatever kind of garden you want, you can create it with the environment in mind. This can mean anything from choosing your plants with care to adding extra shelters for creatures in need, such as bee houses.
Think about your lifestyle now and in the future
Deciding what kind of garden you want is part one. Part two is being honest about your lifestyle, or, perhaps it would be more accurate to say, how much time and effort you can and will put into maintaining it. Here are some questions to ask.
Are you really going to mow a lawn or would astroturf be a better option? It’s not as good for the environment but you could take other steps to compensate for that.
How do you feel about bending? Would raised beds help to make your life easier? You don’t have to use them for everything, but it might help to use them for some parts of your garden.
Do you really have plenty of time for weeding? If not, you might want to use plenty of ground-cover plants to stifle weeds.
Keep safety in mind
This isn’t exactly the world’s most exciting tip, but it is important. Make sure people and animals can get around your garden safely. Even if you don’t have children or pets, your neighbours will and there will be local wildlife. You could say that none of the above should be in your garden, but, even so, it’s good to be a good neighbour (and also makes life easier).
Think about walkways and lighting in the key areas. Be very careful to ensure that water features are either raised well off the ground (e.g. fountains) or that there is an easy way to get out of them if a child or animal falls in. Sloped edges and netting is the usual approach for “natural looking” ponds. Steep edges are to be avoided at all costs, unless they are really high so they can’t be climbed. In the unlikely event you have a swimming pool, keep it covered out of use.
Think about your garden’s security
As a minimum, you want to ensure that any tools are kept away from thieves and ideally you want to think about how your garden can actively contribute to your security. For example, motion-sensitive lighting can make intruders visible (as well as guide visitors) and gravel can make an audible crunch when someone is approaching.
Create a garden for all seasons
Gardens don’t have to look bare and sad in winter. You can use foliage plants and decorations to brighten them up. You can even get some winter-flowering plants. Being nice to nature can help too. Stick out a bird table (and maybe a squirrel feeder) and you can not just bring life to your garden (literally) but get all kinds of entertainment too and maybe get the chance to teach children about the importance of protecting wildlife.
Make the most of the vertical space
This is particularly true of smaller gardens. In fact, in some cases, vertical space may be all you have. Remember to keep weight in mind, you absolutely must avoid overloading support structures, especially walls! Sometimes you can add strength by means of extra structures such as trellises, but again, be reasonable about this.
You can also use vertical space to create more visual interest, for example, by placing plants at different levels to force the eye to move around and hence create the impression of more space. This can be useful even in larger gardens, for example if you have a long wall and want to make it look more interesting.
Think about how plants will grow
Check the expected size of your grown plant and work to that so everything stays in proportion over the long term. Over the short term, you might want to use visual tricks to compensate for your plant’s small size, for example you could buy a garden ornament to fill in the space while it grows.
Keep trees and bushes well away from any buildings, especially ones you value (like your home). Their roots can do horrendous damage to a property’s foundations and can lead to subsidence. Additionally, falling leaves can lead to drainage issues which can also lead to subsidence.
Last but by no means least, some spreading plants are only really safe to grow in containers. Put straight into soil they can quickly overpower every other plant in the garden and become a real nightmare to control. You can avoid this by doing thorough research before you do your planting.
Remember a lot of interior-design tricks can work outdoors too
There are lots of “interior design” tricks, which work perfectly well outdoors, especially in small gardens. For example, you can add mirrors to make the space look bigger and turn necessities (such as containers) into decor. You can also look for opportunities to “blend in” attractive features from outside your garden. For example, if your garden has a view of a landmark, try to use your planting to “frame” it.
Appreciate the importance of scent
Gardens used to be renowned for their scents, but for a while seed banks largely abandoned it in favour of showier blooms. Possibly this was connected with the development of mail-order sales and the need to produce gardening catalogues which were visually appealing. Rather ironically, the internet seems to have encouraged gardeners to move away from this.
Even though the internet can’t (yet) capture scent, it doesn’t suffer from the same space restrictions as paper catalogues and so it’s easier to describe scents and easier to promote the importance of incorporating them into your garden. There’s also been a move away from imported flowers and back to native ones, which, again, may have been helped by the internet promoting them (and their environmental significance).
In short – “A garden is a thing of beauty and a job forever.” Richard Briers
A gardener’s job is never done, even after they die, they’ll be “pushing up daisies” and that’s probably just how most gardeners would like it. If you really want to maximize both your garden’s productivity and the pleasure you get from it, then try keeping accurate records of how your garden grows. These can be anything from practical statistics (so you can see how your techniques worked in practice) to sentimental recollections, such as by keeping a journal or taking photographs to preserve your fondest memories of it.