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Gardening and the 5 ways to wellbeing

Published: 22nd Apr 2021

The knowledge that gardening and caring for nature has positive effects on our wellbeing is quite widespread now. Furthermore, solid evidence as to how and why it is beneficial is continually strengthening and expanding. This is something I'm really keen to highlight and discuss on this blog and I've read about some amazing research in my studies, which I will share in future posts.

Woman crouching working in a garden

One of the most familiar and mainstream guides to good mental health, promoted by the NHS and health charities is the '5 Ways to Mental Wellbeing'. The idea behind these 5 key messages is that there are actions we can incorporate into our lives which, based on research gathered from around the world, will improve our mental wellbeing.

Social and Therapeutic Horticulture (STH), community gardening, green care and other nature based activities can incorporate all of the five actions brilliantly. I use them myself and through my work I've seen them in practice, making a difference to people's outlook and mood. The skills gathered and the changes induced in the safety of the garden can be transferred to other settings and build resilience for life in the outside world.

So, let's explore the 5 Ways to Wellbeing in the garden:

1. Connect

The '5 Ways' say - Connect with the people around you – friends, family, colleagues and neighbours.

In the garden - Mental ill health can and often does undermine a person's confidence and self-esteem, making social situations incredibly difficult and even something to avoid. STH intentionally uses social interaction and cooperative horticulture and nature-based activities to promote improved social skills and relationships with others. People who have taken part in STH projects have reported feeling less isolated and socialised more when gardening in a group and a study on happiness at Oxford university showed a direct link between social skills and happiness.

Even in a less structured setting, like a community garden, the social pressure is reduced because everyone is connecting through the garden itself. Plants have a magical ability to spark memories and ideas and ease conversations.

Social interaction with others experiencing similar difficulties can help overcome stigma sometimes associated with mental ill health and provide connection and belonging through shared experiences and common goals. Additionally, caring for a garden can help a person understand their own needs and bring self-compassion. Connecting with yourself is just as important too.

2. Be active

The '5 Ways' say - Discover a physical activity you enjoy and suits your level of mobility and fitness.

In the garden - Physical exercise helps us to tap into one of our own in-built mood enhancers, serotonin. The amount of this 'happy chemical' in our brains increases when we exercise. The knock-on effect of this can be a boost in self-esteem, better sleep and improved appetite which are all often negatively affected by mental ill health. The great thing about exercise in the garden is that it can either be intense (digging, raking, shovelling etc) or more gentle (deadheading, watering, harvesting etc). Moreover, the more physically demanding gardening tasks can be compared in movement and level of exertion to traditional exercise. In the garden you can work to your own pace or set yourself a challenge, we move our bodies and tend to nature at the same time. It's like a gym workout but you get pretty flowers and tasty fruit and veg as a reward!

An added benefit of gardening activities like raking or planting in rich soil is the release of a bacterium called Mycobacterium vaccae, which can provide a further boost of serotonin. Similarly the scent of actinomycetes in soil can have a soothing effect on many people too.

3. Take notice

The '5 Ways' say - Savour the moment…Be aware of the world around you and what you are feeling.

In the garden - The garden is the perfect environment for being in the moment, both for curiosity and contemplation. Courtesy of the seasonal nature of the activities and surroundings in a garden, there is always something new to notice and to engage our senses. In fact, we can use this in a very intentional way, whether whilst resting or working. We can listen to the sounds of singing birds, running water or trees blowing the in the breeze, we can spot details on flowers or insects, feel the texture of a leaf or the soil between our fingers or take in the scent of blossom or herbs. By focussing our senses in this way we can dissipate the power of anxiety and panic and because of the very scenery itself we can feel less stressed and more restored.

The attention demanded of us in a natural environment is less draining than that in an artificial environment, such as in the city or in the office. This is what Kaplan & Kaplan describes in their Attention Restoration Theory. They state that natural environments need only our involuntary attention rather than the voluntary attention required for other aspects of our lives. This promotes recovery from mental fatigue, restoration and improved cognition, providing opportunities for reflection and resolving problems - all of which are often depleted by mental ill health.

In the garden, life moves at it's own pace. You cannot rush germination or the opening of a flower and you have to work with what you have at that moment in time. It's an essential lesson in patience and valuing the 'now' but always with the positive anticipation of the next stage to come in the cycle of life.

4. Keep learning

The '5 Ways' say - Try something new…Set a challenge you will enjoy achieving.

In the garden - One of the joys of growing plants and tending to nature is that there will always be something new to learn. Even the most accomplished horticulturalists do not know everything. This not only gives us the opportunity to learn but also to play, experiment and find our own way. In gardening the risks are relatively low and the gains are high especially if this is managed effectively by starting with simple, fail safe plants like sunflowers, radish and strawberries and building from there. Ask anyone who notices one of their seedlings pop through the soil or enjoys the taste of home grown food, the sense of achievement is almost as sweet as the fruit itself!

Previously undermined confidence can be boosted by trying new things and problem-solving in the garden. Incorporating responsibilities and choices which otherwise may be difficult is good practice for the outside world but in a more forgiving environment. Even if your plant doesn't thrive, you're not alone, it happens to all gardeners and it can be harmlessly put down to experience.

The undertaking of gardening activities themselves can have both cognitive and emotional positive effects. Garden jobs such as seed sowing and deadheading, which are repetitive and absorbing can induce a mental state of ‘Flow’. Popularised by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, flow can promote learning and skills development as well as increased happiness and more effective emotional regulation.

Even being outdoors can help our learning. Vitamin D, which is produced by our bodies when our skin is exposed to the sun, supports positive neurological health and mental wellbeing. Vitamin D deficiency is now known to be associated with various mental and physical health problems and so getting outside every day is absolutely crucial - remembering to enjoy the sun safely of course!

5. Give

The '5 Ways' say - Do something nice for a friend or stranger…Look out, as well as in.

In the garden - Through plants and gardening there are an abundance of opportunities to give to others. Even finding something that brings joy induces a desire to share, whether that's knowledge, time, plants or harvests. Community gardening is where I have seen this happen the most spontaneously, through the culture of the garden and the common goals of it's participants. In the STH setting gift-making, offering support and sharing resources can all be easily and comfortably incorporated into the programme.

It's not only our fellow humans that we can care for in the garden. Considering the wildlife with which we share our world is vital, working alongside the creatures and natural systems rather than against them. It's when we nurture other living things we find that we also nurture ourselves, which really encapsulates the spirit of the fifth of the five ways to wellbeing.

More info:

New Economics Foundation - Five Ways to Wellbeing. The evidence.

NHS - 5 steps to mental wellbeing

Mind - Five ways to wellbeing