Make your garden your mental wellbeing sanctuary

    Gardening for better mental health
    Published: 27 April 2022. Written by: Laura Potter.

    Many of us have found comfort and escapism tending our gardens (or window boxes), and these bring science-backed benefits for our mental wellbeing. Here’s how to tap into them.

    While you may not be baking endless banana loaves and hosting weekly quizzes any more, one pandemic habit that has stuck – and with good reason – is gardening. UK researchers found that people with access to a private garden reported better health and wellbeing both during and after the first UK lockdown, and were likelier to feel calm, peaceful and have good energy levels. 

    Dr Luke Felton, Senior Lecturer in Social Psychology of Human Performance, at the University of Roehampton agrees. ‘We saw an increase in participants’ general feelings of happiness and they felt more confident about achieving their specific goals,’ he says. ‘These findings support other research that has shown similar improvements in self-esteem, psychological wellbeing, and reductions in stress.’ 

    One key aspect is ‘biophilia’, the innate human instinct to connect with nature. It’s something a 2022 study cited: people exposed to more green space during the first year of the pandemic reported significantly less depression and anxiety. 

    The benefits of gardening

    We instinctively seek solace in nature, perhaps because we subconsciously recognise it has many benefits:  

    • Mindfulness ‘Gardening allows you to be fully present and to engage in purposeful activities such as planting, weeding and tending to flowerbeds,’ says Felton. ‘To practise mindfulness while gardening you should aim to be fully present in the moment and engage your attention in what you are doing but also notice the environment around you, such as the smells, textures and colours of the garden.’ 
    • Acceptance Gardening helps us emotionally. We learn acceptance as we don’t have ultimate control over the success of our crops so it encourages patience and ultimately gives us a real sense of agency and satisfaction as the fruits of our labour are revealed. ’Managing to grow anything successfully evokes positivity just because it reminds you that there are bigger things at play than you and whatever may be going on in your life,’ says Frances Tophill, horticulturist and author of The Modern Gardener (Kyle, £14.99)
    • Improve focus Neil Wilcox is the Training and Education Officer at Thrive, who use gardening to bring about positive changes for people living with disabilities or ill health, or who are isolated, disadvantaged or vulnerable (www.thrive.org.uk). ‘Attention Restoration Theory (ART) recognises the importance of garden features, plants and wildlife that provide soft fascination. Watching a feeding insect or observing the form of a flower can help restore cognitive functioning and general wellbeing.’ 

    So here’s how to make your garden a wellbeing haven…

    Think about colour

    Rather than simply choosing plants you know, that you’ve read are easy to keep alive or that are on sale, be more intentional about creating a mood-enhancing garden using colour. 

    How to do it: 

    There are a few specific plants that always come to mind when I think about ensuring some positivity,’ says Tophill. ‘The first is the sunflower. They’re easy to grow from seed and they get big fast, so long as you protect them from slugs and wind. Their huge, cheerful, bright flowers never fail to raise a smile.’ They are also a natural bird feeder, which ‘makes your outdoor space full of birdsong and joy’. 

    As jewel-coloured gardens has been named as a gardening trend for this year, how can colour influence your mood? Wilcox suggests that greens and blues are calming, while yellows and reds are stimulating, but suggests we listen to our instincts as, for example, people with autism can be sensorially overloaded by too many bright colours. ‘The more filled with colour, the more stimulating it will be for your mind,’ echoes Tophill. ‘The more greens you have, the more calming the space will be.’

    Seek out scent

    Another factor to consider is fragrance. A 2021 study found that natural smells such as lavender, grass, wood, and conifer needles ‘evoke strong feelings of connectedness to nature’. 

    How to do it: 

    ‘Try citrus (best in a conservatory or greenhouse) for incredible scented flowers, or blackcurrants whose crushed foliage gives off a wonderful, fizzing aroma,’ says Tophill. ‘Try growing lemon verbena for a delicious tea that brings calm and positivity, but also for a scent that releases endorphins. Think about having plants that you can brush past and release foliage scents like calming lavender, stimulating rosemary or spicy fennel.’ 

    In fact, you can effectively create a little apothecary of your own! ‘The scent of some herbs has been shown to have effects on mood, so add rosemary to lift depression and lavender for sleep,’ agrees Wilcox. 

    Create a feel-good atmosphere 

    Think about how you want to feel when you’re in the space, and plant accordingly. Perhaps you want to plant things that remind you of your childhood or of loved places you’ve visited, for example. 

    How to do it: 

    For Tophill, the best way to trigger beautiful memories is through scent. ‘The most common scent memory trigger I have come across, anecdotally, is the scent of tomato foliage,’ she says. ‘For so many of us, myself included, this brings back memories of grandparents and summer.’ 

    Think about holidays too. ‘Our minds work by forgetting the mundane and holding on to the unusual,’ explains Tophill. ‘That’s why holidays that only lasted a week seem to have gone on forever when we remember them. So planting things that remind us of holidays like palms, (Trachycarpus fortunei) and tropical plants like banana (Musa basjoo) or tree ferns (Dicksonia antarctica) can really take us back to far-off trips.’

    Grow your own!

    Growing your own fruit and veg is satisfying, healthy, and good for your household finances. ’Plus, it leads you to enjoy other [self-care] activities like cooking, and sharing gluts,’ says Wilcox.

    How to do it: 

    Herbs are a good place to start. Tophill suggests a few specifics: ‘Loads of herbs and vegetables can be started off now – coriander, basil, parsley, chervil, Thai basil or Holy basil, for something different.’ Planting in late spring? ‘Quickly maturing plants like kohlrabi, pak choi, lettuce, rocket, radish, spinach, beetroot, peas and beans are best started off at this time of year too,’ adds Tophill. 

    While some herbs like coriander or basil are best on indoor kitchen window sills, parsley, rosemary, sage and thyme are better on outdoor window sills or pots. ‘Mediterranean herbs – so the highly aromatic woody ones such as rosemary, thyme, sage and tarragon – like 

    free-draining gravelly compost, good sunlight and less water,’ says Tophill. ‘Basil, lovage and parsley – the more sappy, soft, green herbs need more water and less direct sun, and will begin to wilt when they need moisture.’ 

    Make it eco

    Feeling that you are doing your bit for the planet brings tremendous feelings of wellbeing. ‘Although our individual impact overall will be small, if everyone does it, it will be big,’ says Wilcox. ‘Adopting organic, eco-friendly approaches to your gardening is also cheaper, more creative and imaginative.’

    How to do it: 

    Plant a lot! ‘Plants take up water, which means that gardens with more plants and less hard surfaces help reduce flood risk and help to create good ecosystems – spaces for the worms, caterpillars, hedgehogs and birds to feed and live,’ says Tophill. 

    Rather than plastic bottles of feed, she suggests finding a local source of manure ‘or grow plants like nettles and comfrey, which offer a chance to make high nitrogen feeds’. 

    In terms of plastics, reuse and reduce. ‘Try growing plants either from seed or cuttings or by dividing them, instead of buying everything new, often in peat based compost, and a plastic pot,’ suggests Tophill. 

    Reduce watering too. ‘Plant into the ground if you can, as this makes plants much more able to find their own water, and when you do water, do it less often but for a longer period. This means that water gets right down to the deep roots, so they dry out less quickly, making them more resilient.’