Sarah Coles

2. GARDENING FOR EVER – Happiness? Health? Environment

Happiness?  Health?

The concept of happiness as a steady achievable state of being is comparatively modern (look at those meek medieval madonnas, dour Dutch citizens, proud Renaissance magnates,).  Aristotle understood the search for happiness but later it was neither particularly sought or admired, particularly by religions, which state that suffering is humanity’s daily fare.  Then came the eighteenth century and the US declaration that all men have a right to the pursuit of happiness, and Alexander Pope declaring ‘Oh Happiness, our being’s end and aim!’

Today books, CDs, lectures, and articles on achieving happiness pour out each day, as though it’s a skill like learning to sail or cook rather than a state of mind.  Advice ranges from giving to charity (producing dopamine in the same way as sex, chocolate and recreational drugs), yoga and pilates, running, eating yoghurt and pickles to increase useful gut bacteria, social interaction, getting a dog, meditation and exercise.   But the first and main tip is: garden.  Be in nature.  Simply defined, meditation is a way of being aware, and in the garden this awareness becomes the perfect marriage of doing and being.  The actor and comedian Griff Rhys Jones speaks for many when, asked in a quiz where he feels happiest replies, ‘Suffolk.  I have a garden’.

Even the most urban of office workers have discovered the pleasure of growing plants.  It’s even fashionable.  Little pots containing a single plant, like the succulent echeveria with radiating leaves, sit on restaurants table and office desks.  Unlike flowers and other plants, succulents survive weeks of neglect and yet continue to grow, lending  nature to highly most artificial of environments.

The Royal Horticultural Society has a three year partnership with the NHS to highlight the benefits that gardens, gardening and green spaces bring to everyone’s health and happiness.  ‘Gardening is a holistic therapy that works on mental and physical health’ says Kathryn Rossiter, the chief executive of Thrive, the gardening for health charity that has celebrated its fortieth birthday.  The garden is a gym on our doorstep.  Garden broadcaster Monty Don says, ‘I know from personal experience how gardening helps heal many mental and physical ills.  When you are sad, a garden comforts.  When you are humiliated or defeated, a garden consoles.’   Even on a rainy day, potting up plants in the greenhouse, hearing the plink of rain and smelling the plants is uplifting.

Sue Stuart-Smith, a psychiatrist and psychotherapist, writes * ‘I have come to understand that deep existential processes can be involved in creating and caring for a garden.  It is far more than a much loved physical space.  It is also a mental space, one that gives you quiet, so you can hear your thoughts.’  You are immersed in a primal awareness not just of nature’s beauty, but the eternal cycle of the seasons, of life, death and rebirth.  The psychoanalyst Carl Jung, who grew his own vegetables, argued that modern technological life had alienated us from the ‘dark, maternal, earthy ground of our being’, and considered that ‘every human should have a plot of land so that their instincts can come to life again.’

A study recently published in People and Nature, a journal of the British Ecological Society, is just one of many suggesting green habitats can combat blue moods.   The Woodland Trust, the UK’s largest woodland conservation charity, has urged family doctors to prescribe contemplative walks in parks or woods to help ease anxieties and worries.

For peace and inspiration, we can visit parks and gardens, or simply be in one.  But the exercise of actually gardening brings numerous physical benefits, some only recently understood.    Research has suggested that it’s in the dirt, or to be more precise, a strain of bacterium in the soil.  Mycobacterium vaccae has been found to trigger the release of serotin, which elevates one’s mood and decreases anxiety.  As well, it has been found to improve cognitive function and even treat certain diseases.  Mary O’Brien, an oncologist at the Royal Marsden Hospital in London, first stumbled upon these findings while inoculating lung cancer patients with a strain of M. vaccae to see if their symptoms improved.  She noticed that in addition to fewer cancer symptoms, patients also demonstrated an improvement in emotional health, vitality and even cognitive function.  This discovery as been further explored at Bristol University and the Sage Colleges, Troy NY with similar results.  Overall, being in touch with soil is good for us, adults as well as children, physically and mentally.  Anyone worried about lockjaw picked up from the soil should get a tetanus shot.  Report after report lists the benefits.  ‘Women who work outdoors are less likely to get breast cancer a study suggests.  Walking the dog, gardening and excercising outside exposes people to vitamin D that can help ward off cancer’ is an excerpt from just one.*

Gardening helps maintain physical health.  Digging, sorting, raking, pushing, bending and lifting in fresh air are preferable to running like a caged rat in a gym.  As for mental health, one form of research came to the conclusion that gardening should be  counted as therapy.  It lowers stress hormone levels and blood pressure, and now the Royal Horticultural Society has embarked on its biggest scientific study into the effects of gardening on mood and well being.  Dr George MacKerron, a lecturer at Sussex University, has been tracking people’s real-time happiness since 1010 with his smartphone app Mappiness.  Users report what they’re doing and how happy they are feeling, and to date there have been 3.5 million responses.  ‘We’ve found that the top activities are related to physical activity, and most are connected with nature and the outdoors – gardening increases happiness by 7.8 percent.’  It has been estimated that for every £1 spent by the NHS on gardening projects, £5 can be saved in reduced health costs.

People may be happier gardening, but does anyone garden in order to be happy?   Like nearly all these activities, people garden because they want or need to: happiness is an unconsidered by product.  Film maker Derek Jarman, who created his inspirational garden on the shores of Dungeness,  wrote in his journal, ‘Joy and life and more life and more joy and street corners and making a garden out of stones and making films and love’.  As Voltaire concluded in Candide, ‘Il faut cultivar le jardin’.  We must cultivate our garden.

Gardening and the Environment

We may love nature, exulting in crags, valleys and mountains.  Few things are more alluring than long distance paths, walking day after day, seeing the countryside in detail, travelling like our forebears and eventually arriving at our destination.  But how do we get there?  We need a plane, train, a car or bus journey, and on over-walked paths like Hadrian’s Wall or Offa’s Dyke we are contributing little to the environment other than its degradation.   Whereas in the garden nature is already with us, to be seen, inhabited and cherished as much or as little as we want.


Gardening improves the soil.  Anyone who takes over a patch of soil which has been previously mulched, fed and dug, will find it teeming with earthworms below and birds above, and usually in better condition than unworked virgin soil.

Everyone concerned about global warming can in their small way boost a cooler earth.  Greenery lessens the urban heat island phenomenon, whereby cities are hotter than the surrounding countryside.  Anyone who swaps a concrete surface for plants is helping create a microclimate that fights extreme temperatures, flooding, noise and even air pollution.  Where previously a spread of concrete funnelled rainwater onto the street, now grass, trees, shrubs and flowers absorb the rain, lessening the danger of flooding.

Tijana Blanusa, the Royal Horticultural Society’s principle scientist, says a Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) can cut the temperature on an external south facing brick wall by 7C and that inside the house by more than 5C.  Any climbing plant against a wall has an insulating effect to a greater or lesser degree.  By contrast, a shading mesh actually increases temperatures by 1C.

When it comes to ugliness and noise, the best solution is to plant a hedge.  Rows of trees and hedges can cut noise by up to nine decibels, as well as providing a habitat for wildlife.  It can be any shrub, cotoneaster, beech or privet; mine originally was the low Cotoneaster horizontalis with red berries in autumn and winter, which over the years has become embroidered with ivy and maple seedlings.

Cotoneaster franchetti, another evergreen, not only absorbs noise but, according to research by the Royal Horticultural Society bears white and pink flowers attractive to bees, and soaks up pollution.  Particles become trapped in the tiny hairs and ridges of its small ovoid leaves.  One metre of a dense well managed hedge may be able to mop up the pollution equivalent to that produced by a 500-mile car journey, according toTijana Blanusa, principal scientist of the RHS.  Other shrubs like western red cedar and privet are also effective at trapping pollution.


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