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Green prescription: gardening for health

The world is still turning and plants keep on growing, says Elly West, bringing hope and comfort in these uncertain times

Just as the country went into lockdown in March, we were greeted with the warmest and sunniest days of the year. Spring was well and truly on its way, unaffected by the crisis the world was facing. While we were fearful for the future, the sun still shone, the world still turned and plants kept on growing, bringing hope and comfort in these uncertain times. The power of nature can be incredibly healing and being outside in our gardens – our own slice of nature – has so many benefits for both our mental and physical health. And our gardens, if we are lucky enough to have one, have become even more important when we can’t socialise, see our friends, or visit parks, the things we have taken for granted all of our lives.

Enforced home life gives us a chance to take stock of what’s important, allowing us the time to reconnect with nature. Modern life is stressful, chaotic and increasingly urban. Technology is vitally important in keeping us connected to one another, but tending plants and being outside are also vital in keeping us connected to a bigger force, improving our mental and physical well-being.

Anyone who gardens knows only too well how uplifting a session digging, weeding, planting or clearing can be, especially on a warm and sunny day. The health benefits of gardening have long been formally recognised and scientifically studied, with evidence showing those who garden have lower levels of overall reported physical health problems, including obesity, high blood pressure and even dementia. Hospital patients have been shown to recover more quickly from operations when given a view of a garden.

Gardening burns calories and is cheaper than a gym membership. One hour of light gardening burns around 330 calories, comparable to a moderate-paced walk for the same amount of time. Gardening uses lots of different muscles and encourages a range of movement – lifting, bending, walking, stretching – making it good for balance, strength and flexibility. Being outside exposes us to vital vitamin D and fresh air, and increases energy levels. Digging, raking and mowing ups our heart rate, giving us a cardio workout, and even sowing and pricking out seeds is good for dexterity and fine motor skills.

There are also the health benefits gained from growing and eating fresh produce. With the huge drive towards healthier eating in schools and tackling childhood obesity, school gardening has become a popular activity, encouraging improved attitudes towards fruit and veg. Children are more likely to eat healthily and try new foods, if said foods are crops they have grown themselves from seed. As well as the physical benefits, children also gain knowledge about where their food has come from, along with a sense of achievement, satisfaction and pride when their growing projects are successful. They learn patience, confidence and motivation. By investing time and energy, they can then reap the rewards in a very tangible sense, which is something we can all relate to.

Gardening can also have a massive impact on our well-being and mental health. The Royal Horticultural Society has been exploring the relationship between gardening and mental health for several years and has teamed up with GPs across the UK to prescribe gardening activities to patients with mental health problems – a so-called ‘green’ prescription – to tackle anxiety, loneliness and depression. Taking part in a community garden project for example, can provide support and a social network. Allotment gardening is also a good source of social contact for many.

At RHS Garden Wisley, in Surrey, three new ‘well-being’ gardens will hopefully open this year, alongside the recreation of HRH the Duchess of Cambridge’s show garden – The Back to Nature Garden – created for last year’s RHS Chelsea Flower Show to highlight how time spent in natural environments can help build the foundations for positive physical and mental well-being.

The National Garden Scheme also has an annual ‘Gardens and Health Week’, promoting the positive impact gardens have on physical and mental health, and in 2016 it commissioned the King’s Fund Report on this topic. The findings were clear. “The mental health benefits of gardening are broad and diverse,” it states. “Studies have shown significant reductions in depression and anxiety, improved social functioning and wider effects, including opportunities for vocational development.”

To anyone who gardens, this is preaching to the converted, but being outside, listening to birdsong and buzzing insects, watching our labours come to fruition, remaining in tune with the seasons, especially during times of crisis – are life-affirming and necessary to keep us grounded. Put simply, gardening makes us happy.

Although chive flowers are pretty, to keep plants productive you should, ideally, pick off the blooms as they form. These are edible, so add them to salads for extra colour and flavour

I love growing my own herbs in the garden. It largely solves the problem of not having the ones you need to hand for a recipe, and the hardy varieties fare so much better when grown outdoors than those sappy versions you buy in the supermarket and valiantly attempt to keep alive on a window-sill. They are also much tastier than their dried counterparts.

A close relative of the onion, chives make for an attractive addition to the herb garden with their small pink-purple pom-pom flowers acting as a magnet to bees and other winged creatures. Although they die back in winter, the rest of the year they are easy, willing performers, replenishing themselves with ease. They can be sown from seed or bought growing in pots and are relatively unfussy about soil and location, growing well in sun or partial shade. Chop the fresh growth low down when harvesting, then snip it into short lengths to add to potato dishes, salads and omelettes. The more regularly you cut them, the more new leaves your plants will produce.

Although the flowers are pretty, ideally you should, to keep plants productive, pick off the blooms as they form. These are also edible, so add them to salads for extra colour and flavour. Leaves are best used fresh, but can also be frozen then simply defrosted or popped into a dish as you need them.