Down to Earth: what are the wellbeing benefits of gardening?

Explore the glory of gardening, and how it can help sow the seeds of wellness

It was May 2022. My first batch of parsnip seeds failed to germinate because it was too cold. Slugs had eaten the first leaves of the runner beans that I had planted two weeks before. The courgettes had suffered the same fate. My plans for the year were wrecked by a seemingly unsympathetic nature. Welcome to the world of gardening for absolute beginners! It’s good for you, honestly.

I was 35 when I got a garden. I possessed only a rudimentary knowledge of plants, seasons (plant in spring, harvest in autumn), and crop rotation, but was keen to learn more and to experiment, knowing that failure would occur. And indeed it did. Repeatedly.

Some of my thoughts were surreal. In my mind I could bargain with the ‘King of Slugs’, and provide him with a humble offering of a broccoli plant that would satiate his kind, allowing me to harvest the rest of my produce in relative peace. He betrayed my trust in what turned out to be a Faustian bargain, and he also allied himself with the cabbage butterflies to further wreak havoc on my small, defenceless, vegetable kingdom.

However, each disaster brought me back to the drawing board. Some issues such as yellowing (under- or over-watering, or a lack of nutrients) or infestation can be identified. But in a similar manner to much that will happen to you in life, sometimes there is no clear explanation for misfortune. Depending on your outlook, it is either cosmic chance, a Gaian malaise, a Darwinian struggle on the micro-scale, divine intervention, or just plain bad luck. And you have to resiliently accept this, and either adapt quickly, or try again next year while being as stoic as you can.

But remember, you are not alone in this struggle, and of course, each disaster will lead to a profusion of opinions about what you did wrong, and what to do again, and may lead to some conversation on non-Covid/cost of living/environment/Ukraine issues.

I have pleasantly chatted about the difference between ‘second earlies’ and ‘main crop’ potatoes. I have been provided with divergent ways to ripen green tomatoes. “Put them in a brown paper bag and leave them on a radiator,” one person said. “Move your tomato plants into the living room,” said another.

Colleagues who never discussed gardening before, and who I thought had no interest in the subject, have told me that broken egg shells or a spray bottle filled with cayenne pepper can deter slugs. Ever discussed parsnips with a man who owns beehives? I have. If someone asks what you did at the weekend, tell them you planted something. I would wager that they will take an interest.

The day I was asked by a friend when her dad should plant his potatoes, my heart could have burst with pride. “Are they first earlies, second earlies, or main crop?” I sagely enquired. There are also numerous Men’s Sheds (menssheds.org.uk) and local allotment groups on the internet that would be willing to help you.

Of course, trying to grow plants in itself is a valuable ecological lesson. You can see that, without direct intervention, many of our food crops are so vulnerable and require the near constant overwatch of their human custodians to avert catastrophe. The ‘green revolution’ of the mid-20th century vastly increased yields, but also vulnerability. Without the correct input of sunlight, water, and nutrients, things go awry, rapidly.

They cannot be rushed either. A cabbage seed planted in April may not reach maturity until early the following year, but this more seasonal outlook can make us slow down, appreciate the now, and realise that nature has its own rhythm, that we can often forget about, moving from cosseted building to cosseted building as we go about our lives.

Unfortunately, too, you can also witness anthropogenic changes. The aforementioned slugs and cabbage butterflies are the few insect species that I see now. But this can also provide an impetus to make positive changes. For example, use organic fertiliser, plant some wildflowers, buy an ‘insect hotel’, and use wool pellets to deter slugs rather than pesticides.

In this era of globalised ‘mega-trends’, you can often feel listless and despondent. Events seem beyond control, and Vladimir Putin will likely be around wrestling bears in 2023 no matter how many times the Daily Mail tells you otherwise. But in a small, human-sized space, you can take affirmative action with a degree of positivity, and then take this attitude out, writ large on to the world.

Don’t have sufficient space? Get some potato sacks and compost. Chillies and some species of tomatoes can all be grown on a windowsill or in a basket. Have a look for an allotment through your local authority website. A small hydroponics system can be brought online for £40–70. Now you can have the chance to make the same mistakes as me, from the comfort of home!

So, say you do have a moderately successful harvest, and you have more than enough cucumbers than you know what to do with? Now what?

Well, make something. Creation in itself can be of major benefit to our mental health, giving us a similar sense of control and satisfaction to gardening. From nothing to something. This can equally apply to home produce, and unlike our over-commodified food chain, you can actually witness the entire production cycle, rather than just being a despondent consumer at the endpoint. Try pickling. Vinegar, a few spices, and you’re done. Likewise, chutneys require a saucepan and easily obtainable ingredients. A ‘shrub’ is a diluted drinking vinegar (sort of like a spicy kombucha). You won’t feel quite so dependent on the current food production system, and you’ll have greater confidence in your abilities in the future.

But beyond all this, did you know that just being outside in the garden can greatly benefit us? If you’re pottering about in the soil, evolutionary-wise you are engaging in behaviour far closer to our ancient ancestors, even pre-homo-sapien. There will be just enough cognition to occupy you and put you ‘in the zone’, but not enough to overstimulate you.

With the cost of living crisis, and food costs spiralling upwards, there is probably more interest in gardening and growing your own food since the days of ‘Dig for Victory’ in the second world war. No one is suggesting abandoning civilisation, living off the land, or travelling into the wilderness in a McCandlessesque sojourn. Just do something small, and start from there. Engage people in conversation about your green-fingered activities. Notice the changes in the weather, and the shifting of the seasons. Take responsible stewardship of a small patch of the earth to see what you can learn, and slow down for a minute.

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