Why we garden

Sunday, 08 September 2013

Belgian hybrid of Clivia miniata is providing enjoyment in my garden in September

Exactly what makes us want to garden is something that I have pondered on many times over the past few months - particularly since I have been barred from doing much in the garden whilst I wait for my new hip to settle in. The craving to go outside and get my hands into the soil is very strong - what is the source of this craving, I ask myself? Part of it must derive from the sheer aesthetic pleasures that plants and gardens offer us. The beautiful forms and colour of flowers and leaves, and the exquisite fragrances and touchable textures of many plants provides sensory enjoyment that enhances life. Some people have theorised that we actually have an innate attraction to nature - the so-called 'biophilia hypothesis' popularised by EO Wilson in a book published in 1984. He suggested that human beings have an inbuilt deep affiliation with nature (including plants, weather and animals) that is the product of biological evolution.

Some of what gardening provides are physical benefits that make us feel good. I'd much rather get my exercise from the exertions of gardening than in the boredom of an indoor gym, and research shows that gardening is indeed a fantastic way to exercise, with all that bending, lifting, walking and pushing of barrows. Whilst we need to be very aware of sun-protection measures during extended periods of gardening, we do effortlessly get our daily dose of vitamin D whilst doing the rounds of the garden to check how things are growing, as I do each morning.

Seedlings bring excitement and hope to a gardener

Gardening also provides a psychological escape from the stresses and strains of daily life, where our minds can focus on the progress of seedlings, the beauty of a newly opened flower, baby leaves appearing on a bare stem - these happenings can distract and soothe a frenetic mind. The miraculous transformations that occur daily in nature - the germination and growth of a tiny seed into a beautiful flower or fruit, a cutting taking root and growing into a whole new plant, the decomposition of grass clippings and weeds to form compost to enrich our soil - are balm to the soul of anyone with a lot of difficult problems. Researchers have found that there is actually a bacteria in soil, called Mycobacterium vaccae, that when inhaled whilst digging in the garden, gives gardeners a natural high by triggering levels of serotonin in the brain, elevating mood and decreasing anxiety. How often have I enjoyed smelling a handful of soil, without exactly realising why!

Gardening can also be a great way to find time to be on one's own and enjoy solitude amid a busy life: 'I really must pull up those weeds' is code for 'I need some time away from everyone' in my mind! But gardening also offers social benefits: the opportunity to meet other gardeners at garden clubs, community gardens and other garden-related events, and to enjoy the company of like-minded souls, exchange cuttings and develop friendships with people whom we otherwise may never have met.

Gladiolus tristis

The plants we obtain through swaps with friends and relatives can become a living tapestry of memories of special people and times in our lives, a point made in Kathryn's description of her garden in our Garden Ramble feature. My own garden contains a host of plants given to me over the past 30 years. I have flowers from the gardens of both my grandmothers, reminding me of them every time I see those plants. Right now, I have buds on Gladiolus tristis, an unusual bulb with fragrant, greenish trumpets, from a clump planted by my grandmother in her country garden more than 70 years ago. I feel a poignant and tangible connection with people from my life every time I stop to look at one of their plants in my garden.

Gardening also offers a chance to nurture living things, to see them flourish and grow, which is intrinsically satisfying. Growing one's own food is an especially rewarding aspect of gardening. Entwined with this is the ability of gardening to provide hope for the future, as we plan new garden beds, plant a tree sapling, sow a packet of seeds or take a cutting. There is always something to look forward to in gardening - and even if things don't go quite according to plan, there is always next year!

Drifts of bulbs in the farm garden, planted by my grandmother 70 years ago

Going out to do some gardening always allows us to see some results from our efforts - not always the case in other spheres in life. Just to be able to weed a small patch in the garden or prune a few shrubs can give a sense of achievement on a day when there is no headway on other issues in our lives. Gardening also shows the legacy of time. A tiny stick planted twenty years ago becomes a sturdy tree that will last for decades. A packet of bulbs can multiply over the years to become a huge drift.

Finally, gardening offers endless opportunities to learn about plants, gardens and gardening (thus keeping our brains ticking over!), and a wealth of possibilities for interesting outings to gain inspiration from other people's gardens and to seek out new plants in nurseries and plant fairs.

Who wouldn't be a gardener?