Colette Sheridan: Why gardening is good for well-being and sanity in these times

Being outside, having to work with muck and deal with pests, doesn't seem very appealing... but Colette Sheridan finds out there's more to gardening than meets the eye
Colette Sheridan: Why gardening is good for well-being and sanity in these times

LET IT BEE: Dandelions have sprung up in Colette’s garden — she wants to leave the weeds as they are good for pollination.

“ANY news?” my sister asked me the other day.

In these groundhog days, it’s hard to come up with anything interesting to report. So I found myself thinking back on the previous day — and was able to say I had done some weeding.

Weeding? I hear you scoff at the very idea that this mundane activity could possibly be in the realm of ‘news.’ But now that I have my own garden to tend, weeding is going to be ongoing. And for someone like me, initiating a bit of weeding is news, because up to recently, I’ve been a complete slouch on the gardening front. Gardens were just for sitting in with a cool drink and maybe a barbecue on the go. I took them for granted.

While I’m not likely to become a gardening zealot (it can be akin to religion for the seriously green-fingered) I’m slowly coming around to acknowledging the soothing effects of working in a garden.

I have a friend who is a super gardener (she was a finalist on Super Garden on the telly some years ago). She has been offering me advice. 

Knowing I’m not a natural gardener, she has suggested I get rid of the lawn and put down stones and a water feature, to create a Japanese style garden. It would be relatively maintenance-free. I’m tempted.

Right now, the grass has recently been cut (thanks to my handy man) but loads of dandelions have sprung up. They’re good for pollination and very nutritious if you could cope with including a few of the weeds on your plate of salad. I want rid of them but am trying to appreciate them. After all, they’re from the sun flower family. And having a meadow out the back is very much on-trend, apparently.

I’m curious about how gardening is supposedly so good for you. My friend says that while working in her garden, all her worries disappear, she has no sense of time, she becomes totally absorbed in cultivating vegetables and strawberries (although the slugs are a killer) and there’s the satisfaction of eating meals that include home-grown food.

“If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need,” said Cicero, the Roman lawyer, writer and orator. Is this actually true? I get the library bit. Books keep a lot of us going, escaping into other worlds and other psyches. 

But being outside, having to work with muck and deal with pests, doesn’t seem very appealing. 

However, the late Oliver Sacks, neurologist and author, wrote an impressive short essay entitled ‘Why We Need Gardens’.

“As a writer,” wrote Oliver Sacks, “I find gardens essential to the creative process; as a physician, I take my patients to gardens whenever possible. All of us have had the experience of wandering through a lush garden or a timeless desert, walking by a river or an ocean, or climbing a mountain and finding ourselves simultaneously calmed and reinvigorated, engaged in mind, refreshed in body and spirit.”

He added that in 40 years of medical practice, “I have found only two types of non-pharmaceutical ‘therapy’ to be vitally important for patients with chronic, neurological diseases: music and gardens.”

Oliver Sacks has witnessed how nature has had a positive impact on his neurologically impaired patients. For example, an elderly woman with Parkinson’s disease, who often finds herself frozen elsewhere, cannot only easily initiate movement in the garden but takes to climbing up and down rocks unaided. Several people with advanced dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, who can’t recall how to perform basic operations of civilisation like tying their shoes, suddenly know exactly what to do when handed seedlings and placed before a flower bed. Oliver has said that in many cases, gardens and nature are more powerful than any medication. (Why didn’t the mental health practitioners who’ve dealt with me over the years, not tell me? Why the big emphasis on medication? Why not combine both meds and gardening?)

One of the few positives of Covid lockdowns is that a lot of us learned to appreciate nature. The roads and skies are quieter, birdsong is louder. And gardens have been the go-to place when being stuck in the house palls. Not everyone is lucky enough to have a garden. But there are parks. And city-dwellers can grow herbs and flowers on the terraces of their apartments or out in their small backyards.

Who knows? I may progress from weeding to actually cultivating something edible or pleasing to look at. (However, plants have been known to have died under my watch.)

On the plus side, gardening exposes us to sunshine and important vitamin D which is a synthesizer of serotonin. Serotonin is the chemical in brains that induces happiness. I’ll take that. And an oscillating hoe for weeding!

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