Fresh air: pruning in the garden

Mallusk designer Ian Price showed the Duchess of Cambridge his floral creation Mind Trap recently when he became the first person from Northern Ireland to reach the final of the Chelsea Flower Show in 30 years. But you don’t need his skills to enjoy the physical and mental health benefits of gardening. Horticulture therapist Caitriona Kelly explains why …

1. Happiness is…

Digging in the dirt – “A gardener must own a nail brush,” my late friend Sue had exhorted one morning as I sat at her kitchen table busily liberating compacted soil from under my fingernails. She was right. A nail brush is a must. That said, getting your hands dirty can make one happier. Research by Dr Chris Lowry at Bristol University has revealed that a bacterium in the soil called Mycobacterium vaccae triggers the release of serotonin, which in turn decreases anxiety and elevates mood. Little wonder then that we have such a happiness deficit in society when we’ve so little contact with life-giving soil.

2. Exercise

Ditch the gym membership and get out in the garden. As anyone that has dug soil or lumped a barrow of muck around the place will know growing and gardening is a great multi-muscular exercise that involves lots of bending, stretching and load-bearing to improve general muscle tone and prevent osteoporosis.

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It will also improve cardiovascular function. Above all you get out in to the fresh air and get some sunlight on your skin and vitamin D in to your body.

3. Stress relief

In a field experiment, 30 people performed a stressful task and were then randomly assigned to 30 minutes of outdoor gardening or indoor reading. Gardening and reading each led to decreases in cortisol during the recovery period, but decreases were significantly stronger in the gardening group.

Positive mood was fully restored after gardening, but further deteriorated during reading. These findings provided the first experimental evidence that gardening can promote relief from acute stress.

4. Experiencing the present as it is

Mindfulness-based stress reduction techniques focus on enabling the individual to experience the present, as it is, by working with bodily sensations. Our tendency, when experiencing uncomfortable emotions, is to want to push them away, by means of avoidance and distraction. Horticulture brings us into the present as we engage in activities which keep us grounded, taking us “into our hands”. One activity automatically leads to another. How many of us have decided to carry out one small task in the garden to find that hours have gone by in the moment by moment unfolding of time?

5. Growing and nutrition

Research shows that children and adults who grow some of their own food are more likely to eat fruits and vegetables, show higher levels of knowledge about nutrition and are more likely to continue healthy eating habits throughout their lives. Growing your own veg gives you access to…