May 16, 2014 6:21 pm

Chelsea Flower Show: why gardening is good for the body and mind

Gardening may not appeal to exercise junkies, but it will contribute to the health of anyone over 50
Sunken garden with sculptural columns and mediterranean planting©Steven Wooster/GAP

Cleve West’s The Daily Telegraph garden – which won Best in Show in 2011 – was inspired by West’s late mother (below)

I’ve injured my back after a spot of digging and I’m blaming my increasingly sedentary career as a garden designer. I wouldn’t normally mention it but for the irony. You see this piece is about how gardening is good for your health.

Studies suggest that (injuries aside) gardening can improve cardiovascular health and longevity in older adults. Just half an hour of moderate activity each day can help combat obesity and maintain a healthy heart. Of course, much depends on lifestyle and dietary habits but digging, lifting, stretching and pulling will work major muscle groups and, if maintained for 30 minutes or more, burn off calories too.

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Added to that, such work can increase flexibility, strengthen muscles and joints, lower blood pressure and cholesterol, decrease the risk of diabetes and delay the onset of osteoporosis. Those who garden regularly will already appreciate the benefits of fresh air, physical activity and diversion but it’s good to know – officially – that the effort we put into perpetuating our private paradises is doing us good.

Gardening isn’t without its risks, however. Osteopaths treat most garden-related injuries (damaged ligaments, slipped discs and repetitive strain injuries) during spring and early summer when fair-weather gardeners go hard at it after months of hibernation. Chores that involve working just one side of the body can create an imbalance in muscle tone which should be compensated for by changing hands when raking, digging or pruning (though personally I’d rather retain my street-cred and risk back pain than look like Mr Bean with a spade). Gardening won’t match the aerobic, cardiovascular benefits you’d expect from running, swimming or cycling so it may not appeal to exercise junkies. It will, however, contribute to the general health of anyone over 50.

And it’s not only the physical side of gardening that keeps us healthy. Many gardeners – or gardener’s partners – will have noticed how mood can be improved by gardening or visiting gardens. Bipolar sufferers often cite gardening as an activity that can help offset or relieve symptoms and research suggests that the physical and mental activity involved in gardening may even lower the risk of developing dementia.

Gardening ticks many boxes when it comes to wellbeing and fulfilment. I have always thought of it as working meditation – the ultimate me-time. The actions of digging, raking or sweeping might appear mundane but, when allied to the rhythm of breathing and the beating heart, can be both calming and invigorating. And it offers an escape from the annoyances of our technological age.

The magic of gardening is in seeing things grow, but the ability to make them grow can take the restorative benefits of gardening to a higher level; germinating seeds and rooting cuttings can be a powerful process from which to draw strength. In the face of adversity or bereavement, gardens can provide something to hold on to and centre ourselves.

Yvette West in Ptolemais, Libya

Yvette West in Ptolemais, Libya

At the Chelsea Flower Show in 2011 I found myself subconsciously creating a private memorial to my mother, Yvette, who had died the previous year. Part of the garden strongly resembled a scene from a precious holiday snap of her sitting on a block of stone in the ancient ruins of Ptolemais, Libya. I only recognised the similarities as the garden was being implemented and its comforting effect cannot be underestimated. My allotment, a place where we gardened together, is also inextricably linked to happy times and remains a source of strength and inspiration.

It is encouraging to see that gardens are making a comeback in healthcare, having been sidelined from hospitals during the early 20th century.

Evidence suggests that seeing or being in a garden can reduce stress and recovery rates. And I’ve been fortunate to have seen this work at first-hand.

A garden I created for Bupa at the Chelsea Flower Show in 2008 (and relocated to Meadbank nursing home in Battersea) highlighted the therapeutic benefits that gardens can have on patients suffering from dementia. Being able to walk a circuitous route through a garden without dead-ends allowed patients to feel more secure in their surroundings, while the sensory experiences helped recognition and stirred the memory which, in turn, helped to promote a more relaxed state of mind.

Designing Horatio’s Garden at the spinal centre in Salisbury was also a revelation to me. Patients hospitalised for long periods with life-changing injuries can now access a garden. Just being able to get outside, enjoy some privacy, feel the weather and interact with plants and wildlife has helped improve morale and outlook for many patients and their families. Staff can also benefit from the garden, using it as an outdoor gym where occupational therapists put patients to work relearning motor skills.

Meanwhile, I’m excited to be working with Dow Jones Architects on a new Maggie’s Centre proposed for the Velindre Cancer Centre in Cardiff. The centres offer free practical, emotional and social support for anyone affected by cancer. There are 15 centres in the UK and eight more being planned. Each centre combines stimulating architecture and landscaping to create non-clinical environments which are both calming and uplifting – a far cry from the institutional environments that hospitals often become.

And if that’s not enough to convince you that gardening is the mother of all therapies, scientists discovered in 2007 that mycobacterium vaccae, a friendly bacterium found in soil, can help lift spirits by boosting serotonin levels. It may also help children develop a more robust immune system. Never has there been a better time to play in the mud.

Cleve West has won four gold medals and two Best in Show awards at Chelsea. This year he has designed the M&G Garden

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