Green-fingered folk know that gardening is nature’s very own healthy workout. The physical activity helps to reduce levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, leading to a better night’s sleep – while working outdoors can strengthen the heart, reducing the risk of heart attacks and strokes. Raking, planting, mowing, weeding and watering all burn off calories without any need for a costly gym membership.
Now, with Mental Health Awareness Week shortly upon us (9-15 May 2022), the spotlight is on the remarkable power of plants for improving wellbeing. Gardening lures us away from addictive smartphones and brings us closer to nature. Witnessing the joys of the changing seasons and experiencing a sense of achievement by nurturing flowers, fruit and vegetables is highly therapeutic – helping to calm anxiety and provide a welcome distraction from the barrage of negative news that flows from television screens.
According to the Royal Horticultural Society, 30 minutes of gardening burns the same number of calories as playing badminton, volleyball or yoga, and the benefits of gardening for mental health are becoming clearer, too. The RHS points to a King’s Fund report which claimed that gardening can result in “significant reductions in depression and anxiety, and improved social functioning”. Recent research by the RHS found that people who garden every day had wellbeing scores 6.6% higher, and stress levels 4.2% lower, than people who never get their fingers dirty outdoors. Try our five top ideas for transforming your garden into a haven of calm that’ll work wonders for your mental wellbeing.
1. Create a Time Machine
Old-fashioned garden borders billowing with classic flowers are guaranteed to create a tranquil atmosphere of nostalgia that calms anxiety. The sight of blooms that our grandparents grew takes us back in time to a gentler age, reminding us of flowers we experienced in gardens where we played happily as children.
Relaxing cottage borders are easy to establish. Start at the back with a scented climbing rose or fragrant honeysuckle that’ll scramble up fence panels, with taller, quintessential cottage blooms – towering spires of delphiniums and beautiful hollyhocks – set towards the rear of the border. Obelisks add height and structure and look charming when planted with clematis or classic, fragrant sweet peas (the latter of which will supply an abundance of uplifting, scented blooms to cut for the vase).
Spires of bee-friendly foxgloves, the timeless appeal of roses and aquilegia (granny’s bonnet) work wonders in the middle of the border, while low-growers such as lupins, hardy geraniums, antirrhinum (snapdragons), pinks and lavender will set the front of flower borders ablaze with traditional blooms.
2. Let Fragrance Lift Spirits
Freshly cut grass, rain on parched ground and sizzling barbecues – the smells that signal summer has arrived have the power to lift our spirits during warm, lazy days. Delightful fragrance from summer flowers can make gardens magical, providing an impetus for those struggling with low mood to get outdoors into the fresh air.
Night-scented stocks (Matthiola longipetala) transform patios and outdoor dining areas, as blooms release their intense, sweet fragrance at dusk on summer evenings. Pinks (dianthus) can be wonderfully fragrant, too, and ‘Memories’ is the one to go for, because its ice-white, double flowers are renowned for their ability to fill the air with spicy scent.
Sniffing the maroon-crimson blooms of chocolate cosmos (Cosmos atrosanguineus) is a guaranteed mood-lifter, because these cheerful late-summer flowers emit a remarkable scent that’s reminiscent of cocoa.
If you crave more powerful fragrance, towering tree lilies are unbeatable and their blooms are enormous. Planted close to roses – choose varieties with fruity, spicy, myrrh or tea-like fragrance – the combined midsummer perfume is intoxicating.
3. Marvel at Wild Birds in Gardens
Watching wild birds feed is one of the greatest joys of gardening. Helping nature gives us a sense of wellbeing, yet supplementing birds’ natural diet is often regarded as a winter pastime. In fact, feeding birds in spring and summer is just as vital, because feathered friends need energy as they gather materials to build nests and feed their young
Putting food and fresh water out daily helps wild birds to develop a routine of visiting gardens, while watching small birds feed can be wonderfully therapeutic. Black sunflower seeds are an ideal high protein food for spring and summer, as are mealworms – the dish of choice for robins. They’ll attract plenty of other birds that love to feast on insects, including the blue tit, song thrush, blackbird, wren and chaffinch.
Putting food out first thing in the morning helps birds to replace energy they’ve lost overnight and is an excellent motivator to get out into the garden early and make the most of the long summer days.
4. Calming Sounds from Garden Ponds
An air of tranquillity, the soothing sound of water and the finest way to get closer to nature: a garden pond has remarkable benefits for wellbeing – and the environment. In addition to the calming sound of trickling water, ponds create a natural backdrop for al-fresco relaxing and entertaining. Feeding fish and watching wildlife on a summer evening helps our bodies to wind down after the stresses of the working day and forms a welcome distraction from negativity in the wider world.
A small pond, whether created with butyl rubber liner or a pre-formed, rigid plastic shell, can be installed in less than a day. Choose one with a shelf for marginal (partly submerged) plants, because stepped levels will help frogs and newts to exit the water. ‘Fancy goldfish’ such as multicoloured shubunkins, along with ghost koi and golden orfe, are easy to keep. Nurturing an interest in pond plants and coldwater fish will quickly become a fascinating new hobby that motivates us to get outdoors all year-round.
5. Reap The Rewards of a Patio Allotment
Engaging in the community spirit of allotment life is an ideal way for people with depression to break the cycle of social isolation. In many areas, however, waiting lists for vacant allotment plots can span more than a decade. Where securing an allotment is an unrealistic proposition, it’s still easy to embrace the health and wellbeing benefits of nurturing seeds from plot to plate – even where the only available space is a patio or balcony.
Bush tomatoes, mini types that are ideal for garden hanging baskets and plant pots, are available as young plants at garden centres now. Look out for ‘Tumbling Tom Yellow’ and ‘Tumbling Tom Red’ which create a cascade of mixed colour with their abundance of sweet, juicy fruits.
Sweet peppers thrive in pots on a sun-soaked patio, while a window box is all you need for a tasty crop of carrots that are rich in vitamins A and C.
Strawberries work wonders in plant pots, too. Try growing the irresistibly sweet ‘Mara des Bois’ which, unlike many strawberries that produce a glut around Wimbledon time, can crop from May to September. It’s one of the most rewarding strawberries to grow.
Does gardening help improve your mental health? Let us know what you love about it in the comments.