There is nothing new about such claims. A number of other studies reinforce such a view. From the time when mentally disturbed Egyptian royalty were prescribed soothing walks in palace gardens, to the use of therapeutic gardening to assist World War One soldiers suffering from neurasthenia, there has been a proven nexus between such “green” activities and improved physical and mental recovery rates, including reduced stress, a better sense of wellbeing and even increased self-esteem.
In his 17th century poem The Garden, Andrew Marvell famously described such immersion as trance-like: “annihilating all that’s made / To a green thought in a green shade”.
Personally, I experience another, perhaps more mundane, benefit – feelings of satisfaction and optimism generated from contemplating all that silent and magical vegetable growth that is taking place beyond the house walls. Buds opening, roots delving, leaves unfurling, seeds sprouting, flowers bursting into bloom. Come a new day, I will venture out into a kaleidoscopic world, a living tapestry where everything has subtly changed.
Such feelings are allied to another sensation: the sense of fulfillment and reward that comes with being creative in a horticultural sense – by planting seeds or helping plants propagate and thrive, by striking cuttings, feeding parched root systems, dividing rhizomes or removing dead or diseased branches.
And every gardener has experienced the sheer joy of harvesting produce nurtured from small beginnings. I recall with pleasure my father’s sense of pride when bringing home peas, carrots, cabbages, tomatoes and potatoes. Sunday lunch always tasted better when accompanied by fresh vegetables. Or his pleasure in presenting any visitor with a bouquet of cut flowers taken straight from the garden.
It does not stop there. What about gardening for exercise? In a comprehensive study at Michigan State University, researchers found that 2.5 hours of gardening each week reduced risks of obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, osteoporosis, heart disease and even premature death. It is an activity that exercises not only the arms but also the legs – a great way to involve the whole body.
And in an even more striking finding, the study concluded that people who opted for gardening as their main physical activity each week were likely to exercise 40-50 minutes longer than those who chose activities such as biking or walking. The feel-good factor.
There is growing evidence that gardening helps in other measurable ways. In an increasingly urbanised world, the presence of plants and especially shrubs and trees in our own borders or, for flat dwellers, in nearby parks and community gardens, enriches the very air we breathe. All photosynthesising plants absorb potentially harmful carbon dioxide, sequestering it and releasing life-enhancing oxygen back into the atmosphere. Just for the record, they also intercept harmful airborne particulates, save water and prevent soil erosion and flooding.
One study recently found that trees prevented nearly a million cases of respiratory disease and removed an estimated 17 tonnes of atmospheric pollutants in one year. In the same timescale, one substantial tree provided enough oxygen for 18 people. And the nearer they are to human habitation, the more their health-giving impact on people’s lives. Trees in your garden? An especial treasure!
We are not the only benefactors either. Gardens are a haven for innumerable species of insects including butterflies and bees. Shrubs and leafy trees provide cover for birds, your lily pond is home to frogs and fishes.
More mundanely, gardens increase property values and help pay the grocery bill. If you have a decent garden in Thailand, there is little excuse for not growing your own produce since most of the world’s edible vegetables and fruits thrive in this most fecund of environments. Just visit your neighbourhood market and you will see what a cornucopia of fruits and vegetables are grown in your locality. Are you doing likewise?
The natural world has been long extolled by philosophers and poets able to empathise with its “good vibrations”. Thus the poet Wordsworth wrote more than two centuries ago: “One impulse from a vernal wood / May teach us more of man / Of moral evil and of good / Than all the sages can”. This might seem like an extravagant claim but grant him a modicum of poetic licence. After all, what he means is something all nature lovers everywhere subscribe to: the restorative and benevolent force of nature. In what is more a Buddhist than Christian “impulse”, the poet avers that walking in a wood where spring is springing is an enspiriting experience; a place where we feel a sense of kinship with other living things, at one with the universe.
While few of us nowadays can enjoy a bucolic existence, every gardener can testify to the beneficent, even the therapeutic power of Mother Nature. If we cannot walk among the bluebells in “a vernal wood” or marvel at a lake ablaze with lotus blooms, where better to experience nature’s presence than in our own garden: smelling the earth after a freshening shower, inhaling the perfume from a jasmine flower or listening to the chorus of cicadas.
The garden has always been a precious microcosm of the natural world at large. Today, its ecological importance is massive – and getting more and more so. As green spaces vanish everywhere, as habitats for wild creatures shrink and as man is increasingly confined to an unnatural existence in apartments or condominiums, our gardens fulfill a crucial role – oases of greenery in our concrete landscapes. Tend and nurture your garden. In so doing, you will be nurturing yourself.
Patrick has been writing for thirteen years about gardening in Phuket and allied topics. If you have horticultural or environmental concerns, please contact him at email@example.com. Many of his earlier creative and academic publications can be found at Wordpress: Green Galoshes.
Patrick will shortly be publishing ‘The Tropic Gardener’, an indispensable guide to Southeast Asia’s flowering plants, based on his experience of gardening in Phuket.