Garden Forever
Grow better, feel better, garden longer
by Karen York

A wise gardener and horticultural therapist Gene Rothert has written, “What we tap into in our gardens is not easily rationalized or explained, but it’s something we should never have to give up.”

He’s right, but scientists are taking some small steps in discovering what drives us into our gardens to grovel about in the earth, revel in a bed of peonies and proudly flaunt our dirty fingernails.

They have found that being in a natural environment lowers blood pressure, reduces muscle tension and increases alpha waves in the brain. In fact, just looking at pictures or videos of nature can reduce stress and lessen negative emotions. No wonder 300 people who were asked to describe the most healing environment for someone in pain and need of comfort described a place full of trees, water, greenery and stone. Gardeners certainly know this and even non-gardeners recognize it intuitively. A friend in New York says public gardens across the U.S. have been packed in the wake of September 11.

Many gardeners when asked why they garden respond that they find it an escape from the stresses of work, family pressure, the pace of daily activities, etc. Although stress is subjective (my stress could be your exhilaration) and varies in degree, one thing is certain: our health is closely related to how well we cope with it. I’m convinced that the increase in home gardening is in direct proportion to the amount of stress in our lives.

I recall a fascinating television documentary in which a group of lively centenarians were interviewed in an effort to discover their long-living secrets. High on the list was their ability to cope with loss. I noted (with no surprise) that several were shown working in their gardens (perhaps giving truth to the line that old gardeners never die, they just go to seed).

So much of our emotional wellbeing depends on our coping abilities. Whatever kind of loss, a loved one, a pet, a job, a home or a faculty (sight), we mourn and go through the grieving process. Nature has long been a part of that process and our rituals, from flowers to memorial gardens. But in the garden, nurturing living things, and fostering the continuity of life beyond ourselves, we find relief, as well as a deeper understanding of what Henry Mitchell calls “the great cycle of wheeling life.”

Also high on the centenarians’ list were social interaction and exercise. Well, gardeners love to share plants, seeds, advice, experiences and zucchini. And every gardener can attest to gardening as a good workout. Even relatively light work such as weeding, trimming or raking burns about 300 calories an hour. Digging, hauling mulch, and heavier work not only burns calories but also improves muscle tone and bone strength. Added benefit comes from being outside in the sunshine (vitamin D helps the body absorb calcium). Researchers have found that regular exercise not only relieves depression but also improves cognitive abilities in middle-aged and older people. Gardening provides lots of opportunities to use it (or lose it)!

The garden allows us to indulge our senses, and sensory stimulation is vital to healthy human functioning. In fact, the sensory element is fundamental to the garden’s appeal: getting your hands in the soil, feeling the surprisingly velvety petal of a poppy or the roughness of tree bark; inhaling the sweet scent of nicotiana; tasting a fresh picked tomato; hearing the rustle of grasses and the chirps of arguing sparrows; and seeing the infinite range of colours in the heart of a tree peony.

Beyond the physical benefits, the garden offers unlimited creative possibilities, and the chance to stimulate that sixth sense: the intellectual sense, there’s always something to learn, and with every lesson comes a greater understanding of nature’s ways, a deeper sense of satisfaction, and often a healthier garden (and gardener). We know now that maintaining good levels of physical and mental activity helps to ward off Alzheimer’s disease. And it is simply gratifying to nurture something, to tend something that responds so readily to our care. Who can fail to marvel at the ability of a tiny seed to sprout and grow and present us with lustrous blooms, tasty salad fixings, or a canopy of shade?

Gardens can also give us a sense of control, important when we often feel that there are so many things beyond our control. We are not going to be able to control nature, but at least in our gardens, we can exercise some choice, deciding what to grow where and when. If we just keep working on the why, we’ll be laughing. As we realize that our health is closely bound up with the planet’s health, we will understand that in restoring the earth in our gardens, we also restore ourselves.

Given that there are so many things to tap into in the garden that contribute to our well-being (and by extension, our health and longevity), how can we ensure that we don’t have to give them up?

Some ways to make gardening easier so we can do it longer

  • Raised beds bring plants closer for observation and crops closer for harvesting, particularly for people using wheelchairs. The beds may be permanent structures made of brick, stone or wood, or temporary, collapsible A-frame and table-style planters. They can be any height but should be no more than five feet across for easy access from both sides (30 inches if access is only from one side).
  • Use lightweight, ergonomically designed tools. You can also get things like D-grips to add to your existing long-handled tools, or padded foam cylinders to add to the handles, a great help for arthritis-sufferers.
  • If bending is difficult, work from a padded stool and use lightweight extending-handle tools. Incorporate seating throughout the garden‹and use it!
  • Use a kneeler which has tubular metal side pieces (and doubles as a seat) or a sponge pad or knee pads to save wear and tear on your knees.
  • Garden up: grow plants up arbours, pergolas, obelisks, trellises and walls.
  • Keep hanging baskets at a convenient height or use a pulley system for easy watering, deadheading, etc. Balcony gardeners should check out the Rainstick, a handy new watering tool.
  • Have hose bibs installed with your planters, or put in a drip irrigation system, to save carting hoses or heavy watering cans.
  • Carry hand tools, twine, labels, etc., in a bucket to avoid running back and forth to the shed or garage.
  • Fill the bottom third of containers with recycled Styrofoam popcorn, or crumpled plastic six-packs from annuals. It will add drainage and make the pots lighter to move around.
  • Use soilless potting mix in containers, with slow-release fertilizer and water-retaining polymers, to save on watering.
  • Choose easy-care, non-invasive perennials that don’t need frequent division.
  • Use mixed shrub borders instead of hedges that need constant trimming.
  • Look for native plants and cultivars that have good disease- and pest-resistance.
  • Get nature to do a lot of work for you: provide lots of organic matter and the worms will do the digging; bring birds into the garden to control pests; in dry areas, use drought-tolerant plants that won't need a lot of water; and replace high-maintenance lawn with groundcovers.
  • Mulch, mulch and mulch some more!

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Grow better, feel better, garden longer is a copyrighted article by the author, Karen York. The use of any part of this publication reproduced, transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, or stored in a retrieval system, without the prior written consent of Karen York is strictly forbidden.