The Casual Gardener: Healthy garden, healthy gardener

An afternoon's gardening in the midst of winter brings benefits for the mind, body and soul, writes John Manley

Working in the garden has physical and mental benefits
Working in the garden has physical and mental benefits

JANUARY is such a dispiriting month. Money, warmth and daylight are all in short supply and unlike the previous month, when consumption of alcohol and food are actively encouraged, seeking consolation in indulgence is frowned upon during the first month of the year.

While mid-winter isn’t a time of year we automatically associate with the garden, it actually gives us a purpose for escaping outdoors into the fresh air when arguably we are most in need of a boost.

In a widely published interview with the Press Association last week, Gardeners’ World presenter Monty Don spoke about how his health – and not just his bank balance – has benefited from gardening.

Monty is open about his occasional poor health. He has suffered bouts of depression and had a stroke almost a decade ago. However, he maintains that gardening helps pull him through the bad times.

“Gardening has helped my wellbeing immeasurably on a number of levels,” he said.

“In terms of physical activity, it is increasingly shown as one of the best and most healthy things that anybody can do.”

This coming Friday sees him host Paradise Gardens, a two-part BBC2 series visiting some of the world’s most stunning Islamic gardens.

The sight of those Middle Eastern and Moorish gardens will not alone lift Monty from the January doldrums, however, which is why he’s been known to use a light box to replicate sunlight in the winter. Naturally, he insists that getting out into the garden also helps greatly.

“It doesn’t matter what the weather is like, if it’s a howling gale or rain, being outside in the light and in the air is intrinsically very good for your health, particularly if you are moving around,” he said.

“In terms of your mental health, because you growing something, you’re doing something positive, even if you are just tidying up.”

Most of us who love gardening and the outdoors have intuitively felt for years that being around plants and having a connection with the seasons must be good for us.

The many therapeutic benefits of gardening have been acknowledged since humans first cultivated plants, and this is perhaps best exemplified in 'horticultural therapy’, a path to physical, mental and emotional healing through the application of a green-fingered philosophy.

Horticultural therapy has been successfully employed in a variety of situations and most notably for people with special needs, or the elderly and infirm, as well as those who have mental health problems, or those recovering from physical illness.

Gardening provides aerobic, isotonic and isometric exercise, the combination of which benefits the muscles and bones, as well as the respiratory and cardiovascular systems.

Strength, endurance and flexibility are all improved by gardening, making it one of the best all-round exercises, helping to prevent things like heart disease, obesity, diabetes and osteoporosis.

Gardeners are also more likely to have a healthier diet, eating a wide range of fruit, vegetables, salad and herbs than non-gardeners, even if they don't cultivate the produce themselves.

Additionally, there is the pleasure derived from physical exercise and the release of endorphins, which help to alleviate stress and negativity. Some studies have even shown that simply being in a garden lowers blood pressure, while a healthy session in the garden also stimulates the appetite and paves the way for a good night's sleep.

Enjoy your weekend in the garden.