It's good to garden (official)
For a friend’s mother, in her 70s and caring for a chronically ill husband, gardening is her salvation. ‘It’s the best therapy she could have,’ says her daughter. ‘It gives her joy, exercise and an escape from the pressures of caring. They can’t get out much because of Dad’s illness, but Mum goes in the garden whatever the weather. There’s something to do every season – whether it’s planting, weeding, pruning or pricking out seeds. When it’s warm enough, she and Dad sit outside and admire her handiwork.’ A mutual interest in gardening also gives the family something positive to talk about. ‘We regularly share gardening triumphs or disasters and photos of interesting discoveries.’ Now, Gardens and Health, a new report published by The King’s Fund with funding from The National Gardens Scheme, sets out the evidence for the multiple physical, mental and psychological benefits of private and public gardens, gardening, and access to areas with green spaces.
‘Gardens are intimately connected to our health and wellbeing,’ says the report, which proposes that the health and social care system should do more to ‘take advantage of our love affair with gardening’. The overall recommendation is that gardens should be integrated into mainstream health policy.
Some schemes are already thriving. There is an increasing number of community garden schemes such as the Lambeth GP Food Co-op, which covers 11 practices in South London. Patients with long-term conditions work together to grow food, which is sold to King’s College Hospital in a virtuous circle where one set of patients grows food for another.
Reciprocal gardening schemes, which come under the NHS strategy of ‘social prescribing’, connect isolated older people who have untended gardens with people who don’t have outdoor space, but want to garden and grow things.
Tending or simply being in gardens can have a marked effect on dementia patients, reducing agitation, aggression and other symptoms that might otherwise be treated with drugs, as well as helping concentration and connection with past memories.
The allure of growing things is compelling for all ages. School gardening has been shown to increase children’s fruit and vegetable intake. Gardening is also valuable for children with learning difficulties and behavioural problems, giving them nonacademic tasks in a peaceful environment.
As former home carer Elizabeth Fielding, 77, says: ‘If you’ve got a little problem and go out in your garden and get your hands into the soil, it disappears for a while.’ Liz has advanced cancer, so her Marie Curie clinical nurse specialist has organised for her to attend gardening therapy sessions at her local Marie Curie hospice in Solihull.
GREEN FINGERS: THE BENEFITS
● Long-term reduction in conditions including heart disease, cancer and musculoskeletal disorders.
● High physical activity.
● Exposure to natural light and vitamin D.
● Reduced levels of obesity.
● Significant reductions in depression and anxiety.
● More opportunities for socialising.
● Valuable as a nonacademic task and peaceful environment for children with learning difficulties and behavioural problems.
Aching muscles and lower back problems can be a downside of gardening. Our octogenarian neighbour who tends our communal garden on her own, including carrying sacks of soil, swears by her weekly pilates sessions with an instructor trained in Body Control Pilates (bodycontrolpilates.com). She says this comprehensive programme of exercises ‘helps me enormously, both with my degenerative disc problem and movement in general’.
BOOK OF THE WEEK: Jar Salads by Alexander Hart (Smith Street Books/£14.99)
Layering salad ingredients in glass jars with screw-top lids keeps them fresh to transport for office lunches or picnics. Cook and food writer Alexander Hart offers 52 scrumptious, healthy and simple vegetarian, seafood, poultry and meat recipes (e.g, veggie taco salad and – my favourite – broad bean, pecorino and parma ham salad).