I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in tune once more. — John Burroughs (1837-1921), American naturalist and writer
Gardening is a very healthy hobby, on so many levels. It’s not just about filling our tummy either, there’s a lot more to be had from a well designed garden than a tasty meal!
If we properly understand our relationship to plants and Nature itself, we can create more comprehensive garden designs that offer way more benefits than what we may previously have thought possible.
In this article we’ll first explore the health benefits of gardening as supported by recent scientific research, and then we’ll look at how we can expand the scope of our permaculture designs to derive maximum health benefits from our gardens.
Why Gardening is Good for You
Studies show that gardening promotes physical health, mental health through relaxation and satisfaction, and better nutrition. In the first part of this article we’ll explore just that, the many well-researched and documented health benefits of gardening – the reasons why we should be doing any kind of gardening!
Gardening for the Body
The primary reason why people decided thousands of years ago to grow plants was to sustain their bodies. This is still a very valid reason today, but there are many other reasons why gardening is beneficial to our physical health. Some of these are:
- Stress relief
- Brain health
Stress relief – A study in the Netherlands indicated that gardening is better at relieving stress than other relaxing leisure activities. Two groups of people were required to complete a stressful task, one group did some gardening for 30 minutes while the other group did some reading indoors over the same time. The gardening group reported being in a better mood than the reading group, and they also had lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol .
Exercise – The activity of gardening is also good for our bodies. It’s healthy regular physical exercise which helps prevent heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity, adult-onset diabetes and osteoporosis. Researchers at Kansas State University already have shown that gardening can offer enough moderate physical activity to keep older adults in shape . This was confirmed by another study where the researchers concluded that gardening is a great way for older adults to meet the physical activity recommendations set forth by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American College of Sports Medicine  .
Brain health – A study that followed people in their 60s and 70s for up to 16 years found that those who gardened regularly had a 36% lower risk of dementia than non-gardeners, even when a range of other health factors were taken into account .
Nutrition – Studies have shown that gardeners eat more fruits and vegetables than other people. The freshest food you can eat is the food you grow, and when you have access to a garden filled with fruits and vegetables, you’re able to eat some of the healthiest food you can get! A European study investigating the links between diet and disease has found that people who consume more fruit and vegetables have a lower risk of dying from ischaemic heart disease .
Healing – Interacting with nature also helps our bodies heal. A landmark study by Roger S. Ulrich, published in the April 27, 1984, issue of Science magazine, found strong evidence that nature helps heal. Ulrich, a pioneer in the field of therapeutic environments at Texas A&M University, found that patients recovering from gall bladder surgery who looked out at a view of trees had significantly shorter hospital stays, fewer complaints, and took less pain medication, than those who looked out at a brick wall .
Immunity – In 2007, University of Colorado neuroscientist Christopher Lowry, then working at Bristol University in England, made a startling discovery. He found that certain strains of harmless soil-borne Mycobacterium vaccae sharply stimulated the human immune system. It’s quite likely that exposure to soil bacteria plays an important role in developing a strong immune system .
Gardening for the Mind — Better mental health
The same Mycobacterium vaccae, a harmless bacteria normally found in dirt, has been found to stimulate the immune system of mice and has also been found to boost the production of serotonin, a mood-regulating brain chemical. Low levels of serotonin are associated with depression. Contact with soil in the garden may actually elevate our mood .
The antidepressant properties of M.vaccae were discovered accidentally while being used for experimental human lung cancer treatment by cancer researcher Mary O’Brien at the Royal Marsden Hospital in London, England. After the patients were treated with heat-killed inoculations of the bacteria, O’Brien’s team observed not only fewer symptoms of cancer, but also improvements in their patients’ vitality, emotional health and mental abilities.
Researchers often find in their studies that subjects who participate in gardening have a positive mental outlook   . Studies reported in the Journal of Health Psychology in 2012 also show that people who feel a connection to Nature are indeed happier .
Gardening has been shown to help prevent dementia in seniors . Gardening requires you to think, learn and use your creativity. By keeping the mind active, it serves as a protective measure against such degenerative diseases.
We must also remember that we humans are social creatures, and we maintain psychological and emotional health by interacting with one another in some form of community. Gardening connects you with people and community gardens provide an ideal opportunity for people to interact with each other. Research indicates that local gardening brings about a better sense of community   .
Health and Balanced Garden Designs
Going back to basics, permaculture is all about the relationships of the elements in a design to each other. This is what distinguishes it from mainstream horticulture and agriculture in a design sense. Often we as designers forget that we ourselves are one of the elements we must include in the design, and that we must design relationship connections too. With static elements that are fixed in place, we position them to create the relationships we desire. It takes more thought to design connections and relationships to an unfixed dynamic element, ourselves – to design relationships that arise with other elements throughout our system as we move through it!
Focussing more on people is not the actual solution, often it’s a bigger problem in itself, as evident in the severely flawed concept of anthropocentric designs that we actually do see in permaculture. Anthropocentric designs are often so skewed towards the focus on people that the human element is not correctly incorporated into the biological ‘web of life’ but artificially and mistakenly ‘exalted’ above it. In such cases the designer ‘sits above and apart from’ and basically designs a production system that simply produce yields, instead of inclusive systems that the people can ‘sit within’ which create a harmonious ecological niche to exist in and interact with. Anthropocentric design looks more like a ‘mini-farm’ that people only interact with to harvest food, with a distinct de-emphasis of ecology. This simply results in a more energy-intensive and labour intensive system that minimally leverages ecological processes!
One of the biggest issues with the ‘agricultural production’ models of growing plants is the tendency to focus solely on one beneficial aspect that plants can provide for us, nutrition. Sadly, we forget the many other benefits that we can obtain from our connections to plants in terms of both our physical and higher needs as humans. After all, there is more to us as individuals than just being walking stomachs!
In our modern societies, our unquestioning domesticated mindset accepts our modern man-made environments which disconnect us from Nature as a given. Such a view is so skewed from reality that we have lost perspective of the fact that as living organisms we are evolved/adapted to function best in our own natural ecological niche (Nature!), and not in sterile artificial environments that have only sprung in the latter (and miniscule) portion of our species’ existence!
If we look at all aspects of our being, with a ‘hierarchy of needs’ as described by psychologist Abraham Maslow, we see that once our basic physiological needs are met, that’s not the end of the story. There’s a lot more to us, and there’s a lot more that gardens and Nature can provide for us too.
Gardening for the Spirit
A garden can also serve our higher needs. It can provide a harmonious space to relax, unwind, reflect and restore ourselves. It can serve as a place where we can appreciate the beauty, form and colours of Nature. It is a place for observation, where we can watch Nature and learn from it.
Gardening reconnects us to the cycles of Nature. These cycles are the rhythm of life itself. When we spend time in the garden, we learn to slow down, and when we get absorbed in our activities, we lose sense of all time and space and forget our daily worries and concern, and we lose ourselves in ‘the zone’, a blissful Zen state where we are totally immersed in our activities and that timeless moment.
According to Clare Cooper Marcus, MA, MCP, professor emerita from the University of California at Berkeley, and one of the founders of the field of environmental psychology, one of the reasons why Nature may be so successful at reducing stress is that it puts the mind in a state similar to meditation. When you engage Nature, you naturally stop thinking, obsessing and worrying. Your senses are awakened, which brings you into the present moment, and this has been shown to be very effective at reducing stress, says Marcus, drawing on her own observations .
Harvard naturalist and Pulitzer Prize winner Edward O. Wilson, who coined the term biophilia (love of living things) believes that Nature holds the key to health. He believes that we have an affinity for nature because we are part of nature and would prefer to look at flowers and grass rather than concrete or steel. As part of the natural world, we are connected to and restored by it.
Studies presented at the 1999 Culture, Health, and the Arts World Symposium in England also found beneficial effects in even just looking at nature. In one study, conducted in Uppsala, Sweden, 160 post-operative heart patients were asked to look at a landscape, an abstract art work, or no picture. Those who looked at the landscape had lower anxiety, required less pain medicine, and spent a day less in the hospital than the control group patients .
To reap these restorative benefits of Nature, all we need to do is plant a few flowers or herbs and enjoy Nature’s gift to us!
A Garden for All the Senses
Taste is only one of our five senses, and a ‘production garden’ only appeals to this one sense and forgets we have four more – sight, smell, sound and touch! To really appeal to all our senses, we can build a ‘sensory garden’. This is a garden brimming with colours, scents, textures and shapes, designed with the purpose to engage as many of our senses as possible.
- We have many choices here — flowers and coloured foliage can supply a kaleidoscope of colours to feast our eyes on. Cool colours, such as blue, purple, and white tend to be calming, soothing, and promote tranquility, whereas warm colours such as red, orange, and yellow are stimulating and promote activity.
- Herbs have interesting flowers too, as well as their main feature, scent! Many can be used for making fragrant teas.
- Culinary herbs have rich aromatic oils which provide a wonderful scent in the garden and taste in the kitchen.
- Medicinal herbs come in every shape, size and colour and can be used for maintaining our health as well as providing a stunning display in the garden.
- Tactile plants appeal to our sense of touch. Smooth, soft, silky leaves almost compel you to touch them! Springy ground covers and succulent leaves add tactile interest to a garden, as do a few spiky plants. Choose plants that are resilient enough to be handled often.
- Aromatic plants such as the mints and scented pelargonium are the scent mimics of the plant world. They can they copy such a wide range of scents found in the plant kingdom, and then some. Beyond the usual common mint smell, peppermint and spearmint, there are mints that smell like apples, basil, chocolate, menthol and even Eau de Cologne. Not to be outdone, there are scented pelargonium that smell like lemon, lime, orange, rose, citronella, peppermint, coconut, nutmeg, bubblegum and even ‘Old Spice’ aftershave….
- Sound is an important element, and the rustling of leaves and grasses can be quite soothing, as can be the flow of water from a fountain or water feature.
- Living things enliven a garden, and habitat gardening will bring in lots of life to animate the space. Use trees and plants which attract birds and bees into the garden. Add birdbaths and perches.
- Remember to create a shady, quiet spot where you can sit down, relax and enjoy the garden!
A sensory garden and a productive garden are not mutually exclusive concepts. The addition of ‘sensory’ plants to a productive system increases biodiversity, adds more companion plants that create beneficial relationships to existing plants in the system, and brings many ecological benefits. Flowers provide nectar sources to bees and an alternative food source to beneficial predator insects. Plants provide homes for beneficial insects.
Anything from a food forests to a vegetable patch and even a kitchen garden can make a wonderful sensory garden. If we dare to push the boundaries with our garden designs, our gardens can produce way more benefits for us than simply yields we measure by weight!
By creating a space where we can reconnect with Nature, we can provide ourselves the means to heal our mind, body and spirit, and a means to heal the planet also. When we grow gardens, we grow life, which we care for, nurture and partake in.
To quote the Permaculturist Geoff Lawton:
All the world’s problems can be solved in a garden.
Gardening can indeed feed the body, mind and spirit in ways you may have thought possible!
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