Gardening: How urbanites can reconnect with nature on their doorstep

Tree showers, mindful eating and cloud watching can all help us appreciate the wild, says an expert, writes Hannah Stephenson...

Nectar-rich plants will bring nature to you
By Hannah Stephenson, PA

WHEN nature lover and teacher Helen Rook's beloved dog Mia died four years ago, she initially found it difficult to go for walks without her faithful friend.

“Going for walks in nature was just too lonely,” the teacher of art and outdoor studies, who lives just outside Bradford city centre, recalls.

“So we started to try to find other things to do in nature which engaged your brain a little bit.”

So came the idea for her new book Urban Wild: 52 Ways To Find Wildness On Your Doorstep, in which she offers a plethora of ideas on how you too can reconnect with nature even if you live in a city.

Here, she offers 10 tips on how you can go wild in an urban environment, without going too far afield.

1. Take a tree shower: “You don't need a towel – it's about bathing in the woodland. It's come from Japan, which is quite ahead in forest therapies. A series of studies in Japan in 2005 found, through blood and urine tests, that the levels of cortisol (stress hormone) are decreased after spending two hours in nature. Taking a forest shower involves absorbing some of the woodland. Look at trees branches, notice the differences in shape and colour of the buds in your local park – really observing them is likely to improve your mood.”

2. Be out in a storm: “People seem to think that when the weather's bad they've got to be indoors and they are afraid of being out in big weather. I love big weather. To actually notice that power is really exhilarating and I think it's good for your health,” she says. Think about where you want to watch the storm from – maybe not a forest if there are winds of above 40mph – and don't risk hypothermia or getting struck by lightning. But don't be afraid of getting wet if you want to feel the rain on your face, she says. After drying off inside, make a hot drink and enjoy the energising feeling.

3. Make a natural gratitude journal: “Gratitude has been found to have lots of wellbeing benefits, spending time being grateful for things that are good in your life can improve your mood and help you experience more positive emotions, as well as reducing stress levels, and get you out of an anxious state,” Rooks says. Use dried flowers, prints and leaves or flowers to create monoprints, or press flowers, trace leaf skeletons and take pictures of nature to put in your journal. It's about putting nature in with the gratitude.

4. Plant a nectar bar: “Encourage other animals to come and bring nature to you. My front garden is about 15ft x 20ft at the most. I have wild flowers, herbs and an apple tree in my front garden and it just feels alive. Having nectar-rich plants in there brings nature to you.” Even if you have a tiny space, you only need an old bucket (with drainage holes in the bottom) planted with wildflowers to create a splash of summer colour and attract bees and butterflies, she suggests.

5. Make daisy oil: “You can extract the properties of different plants in different ways, and in herbalist's terms daisies are good for bruises. You just soak them in oil (sunflower oil is fine) for about a month, strain them off and then the properties of the daisies will be in the oil, which can be used to make balms or just put it straight on to a bruise.”

6. Honour your feet: “Taking your shoes and socks off, even when you are just sat outside and feeling what it's like to free your feet from the confines of your shoes, is great. We do it all the time on holiday – but think to do it on a more regular basis.

“If you are sitting on your balcony in the morning, take your shoes and socks off to get a full sensory experience. Or try to get different textures under your feet and feel the support of the earth,” she says.

7. Watch clouds: “This might be something you'd naturally do as a child but adults should spend more time stopping and noticing the clouds. Just spending a minute being aware and mindful of your surroundings can have massive benefits health-wise,” she says.

8. Find a sit spot: It might be your garden or balcony, or a city space with a tree or flowers, but take a mat or rug and sit down for a while, pausing to stop your mind from chattering about the things you haven't done or need to do, Rook advises.

Be aware of your breathing, the points of contact your body has with the earth and notice the birds, insects or animals who are sharing your space. Even if you have a tiny garden, you might put up a bird feeder and observe from a sit spot inside, or on a balcony. Alternatively, sit looking at your houseplants and admire their shape and beauty, she suggests.

9. Eat mindfully

Blackberries in autumn are among the most foraged of foods. Hook advises: “Focus on tiny things within the bigger picture of nature when you eat, the bud that formed, bees that pollinated the flowers and how the sun, rain and nutrients helped it grow and turn into these delicious berries.” They will taste all the sweeter if you eat them mindfully.

10. Take photographs: Make the most of natural light and all its shadows to take pictures of landscapes and individual plants, she suggests, either by heading off to your local urban wilderness at different times of the day, or making the most of what little outdoor space your have.

Invest in a photo ball which refracts light and captures landscapes which appear to bend into the frame. You may want to add them to your gratitude journal.

Urban Wild: 52 Ways To Find Wildness On Your Doorstep by Helen Rook is published by Bloomsbury, priced £20. Available now.

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