Tree tops from below

What is garden therapy?

Debi Holland unravels the myths, magic and truths of garden therapy.

Throughout lockdown many of us found solace in our gardens and walking around local woods and countryside. We discovered we felt uplifted after spending time in nature. Our close relationship with the soil, plants, trees and wildlife allowed us to reconnect with nature and this directly affected our wellbeing. It felt good!

In these uncertain times it is more important than ever to look after ourselves, take time out to breathe, appreciate the wonders of nature and use our gardens and outdoor spaces to improve our mental health.

Forest Bathing

Shinrin-yoku or forest bathing is gaining popularity in the UK and has been scientifically proven to enhance health but what it is? 

In a nutshell it is spending time outdoors immersed in trees. In the 1980’s the Japanese government discovered that two hours spent in a forest could lower blood pressure, cortisol stress levels decreased and our memory and concentration improved.

Forest bathing is gaining popularity in the UK. Image: Debi Holland

Trees release phytoncides, which boost our immune system. Spending more time outdoors increases our absorption of vitamin D, which is important for our skin and bones. Our health can be directly influenced by nature and how we interact with it.

How do you forest bathe? 

Simply choose a quiet time of day, turn off electronic devices, go outdoors and breathe. You don’t need to be in a forest! Take long deep breaths while walking slowing or sit soaking up the natural atmosphere of your surroundings. Use all your senses to fully absorb the calm qualities of the nature. Listen to birdsong, watch the movement of branches and leaves in the canopy, smell the damp earth and moss, touch the bark of a tree. Feel connected and calm.

Medicinal Plants

Since prehistoric times plants have been used to heal. Packed with phytochemicals plants have the ability to change mood, fight infection, reduce pain and even cause death.

Over time, and trial and error, humans learnt which plants successfully treated ailments and wounds so created a comprehensive first aid kit in their own gardens or foraged from countryside and woodland.

Many medicinal plants can be made into a poultice, infused as tea, powdered or made into oils, lotions and balms. 

Plants like Chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla) is full of antioxidants. Its calming affect reduces anxiety, depression, aids digestion and lowers blood pressure. It contains apigenin, which promotes sleep, so make tea and have a cuppa before bed!

Rosemary with purple flowers
Rosemary contains anti fungal, antiviral and antibacterial properties. Image: Debi Holland

Rosemary (Salvia rosmarinus), contains antifungal, antiviral and antibacterial properties. It makes a soothing tea. Rosemary improves memory, joint pain, and indigestion, repels insects and promotes hair growth.

Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia), has antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties. Its scent reduces anxiety and stress, evokes calm and promotes restful sleep. 

If you have an Aloe vera (Aloe barbadensis), plant indoors use the sap to soothe burns, cuts and bites.

NB – Always be sure to positively identify any plant you intend to use for medicinal purposes and contact your GP for advice for persistent ailments or other concerns.

bunches of cut lavender on bench
Lavender has antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties. Image: Debi Holland

Mental Health

Covid-19 has significantly challenged our mental health but many of us have found sanctuary in our gardens and outdoors.

Soil contains the harmless bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae that releases dopamine and serotonin, a natural anti-depressant in the brain, which makes us happy so gardening can be tremendously beneficial for people suffering with bereavement, loneliness and long-term illness. 

There is always something requiring attention in a garden. It provides a great distraction to occupy the mind. It gives purpose, focus and visible results for your efforts as well as being social. 

In these unsettling times, gardening may be the perfect antidote to alleviating troubles and worries. 

Jobs in the garden can help focus the mind and give us purpose. Image: Debi Holland

Meditation

We can all be guilty of rushing around, leading hectic lifestyles and generally having our minds cluttered with an ever-expanding tick list but our minds need a rest too.

Meditation can be incredibly therapeutic and is a natural approach to balancing and cleansing thoughts, improving focus and lowering stress levels.

Meditation focuses on our breathing. Sit comfortably, close your eyes and concentrate on the sensation of inhaling and exhaling. Your mind will wander but when it does, take a minute, refocus and return your attention back to your breath. 

Short meditations can help to regain a peaceful minute or two within your day. You can always build up to longer sessions with practice.

Exercise

Gardening is an amazing way to burn calories and a great alternative to the gym. It is a whole body workout and it is free.

It amalgamates strength, flexibility, physical endurance and balance. A few hours of digging, bending, stretching, weeding and raking will benefit body and mind.

Gardening can help you lose weight, stay fit, increase your heart rate and make you feel good. It can also be strenuous so do not over do it, take breaks. Remember to sit back and admire all your hard work!

If you prefer a more relaxed approach to garden exercise then try yoga, pilates or Tai Chi. Whether you have a large garden or a balcony, there is always room for a stretch.

Mindfulness 

Life at times can feel overwhelming but our gardens can provide a welcomed respite to escape for an hour or two. Mindful activities allow us to focus on simple, relaxing interests and lose ourselves in our garden. Even the simple act of walking barefoot in our gardens or picking flowers can be immensely pleasurable.

Have a digital detox. Turn off your phone!

Look. Listen. Touch. 

Spend time studying plants and wildlife in your garden. Sit still and listen to the soothing orchestra of birds and bees and even the sound of rainfall can be therapeutic. Reach out and touch leaves and seed heads, they all have a different texture and shape. The garden is remarkably tactile and there to be interacted with, not just admired from a distance. Connect with nature.

bee on digitalis parviflora
Bee on Digitalis parviflora ‘Milk Chocolate’. Image: Debi Holland

Gardening is fully immersive and allows us to slow down, to be connected to the present. It helps us regain perspective. Studies show the colour green relaxes people, which mean our green spaces really are providing us with garden therapy.

Other articles you might like to read:

Power of Plants

Mindfulness for Gardeners

How to Reconnect Teenagers with Nature

Planting Hope

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