Gardening has many physical and mental benefits, including helping people to relax and even recover from surgery, writes Joanne Adams.
It has long been understood that contact with nature provides an opportunity to calm the senses.
Nature has the capacity to capture our attention and having access to a garden allows contact with nature that is direct, continuing and close at hand.
Recently, I looked into the benefits of everyday experience in the garden by conducting a study as a part of my Master of Health Sciences thesis at La Trobe University. I found that for many older gardeners these benefits were particularly evident and occurred on physical, mental, emotional and spiritual levels. It also revealed benefits on community and environmental levels.
The study included in-depth interviews with 12 gardeners in regional Victoria ranging in age from 46-90. For many older participants, the garden provided opportunities to stimulate mental and physical activity at a pace and in a manner which was individually appropriate.
Older gardeners especially received greater enrichment at emotional and spiritual levels. Everyday experiences in the garden frequently drew meaning of a profound nature. A combination of all these factors was particularly significant in terms of healthy ageing.
Participants in the study were experienced gardeners who had tended their current gardens through prolonged drought conditions and at times severe water restrictions. The following represents a precis of the experiences of older gardeners in accordance with three main themes.
Engagement with the garden
Significantly “learning through doing” forms the basis of engagement with the garden. Learning was seen by most participants as integral to the gardening process. It provided an intimate knowledge of the garden and was accompanied by a process of nurturing. For some, plants became almost like children.
The process of learning required participants to be continually active in the garden. Learning occurred at a pace, and with the resources, of the participants choosing and provided a basis for discussion with friends and fellow gardeners. Many participants described this as a process of trial and error. Importantly, they gained an understanding of the conditions specific to their own garden and made choices about the type and range of plants which either remained in the garden or were replanted.
Most felt that the garden enabled them to gain a level of fitness that was beneficial to their health. The level of activity varied greatly from hard physical work digging and turning compost, to more moderate activities such as walking, bending and twisting. The health benefit of being outdoors was also noted by participants, with one participant commenting that if it wasn’t for the garden she would probably stay inside most of the time.
A range of connections were observed within the study. A period of connection emphasised a deeper awareness of “self”, particularly in relation to a broader social and environmental context.
Three means of connection were evident: a connection in time to the “self” often recognising elements of the past, present and future; social connection; and connection to the broader environment.
Most participants acknowledged that such a connection takes time to develop and in some cases were quite unexpected and many retained a deep connection to the plants in their care. A sense of connection very often provided impetus for social interaction.
For many participants, the garden represented a significant connection to the past. Memory of the first smell, touch, sight or overall experience of a garden and its various plants were frequently enduring. For some, a sense of the value of the garden was instilled by the actions of parents and grandparents. Memory of past gardens may be associated with play and an enduring sense of mystery, intrigue and wonder.
Particular plants were often highly significant because of the connection they represent to family members and friends, past and present. Connection to plants provided clear insight to the cycles of life – of living in the present often characterised by attachment, loss and moving on.
Significantly, the garden also represented a connection to the future. Planting the seed that will in the future grow; establishing a garden that will provide habitat for birds and animals; anticipating the change of the seasons that see both growth and decline.
For some participants connection to the future was also seen as leaving a legacy of knowledge and plantings for family members or the environment generally.
Engagement with the garden frequently prompted and strengthened social connections. Social interaction provided an important extension of the gardening experience.
Gardening provided a means to share knowledge and resources with neighbours and a collective recognition of the value of respective gardens emerged. It was also apparent that through demonstration, a participant’s garden could provide inspiration to others. This opened the possibility that it might represent an asset to the community.
For some participants, a sense of connection to their own garden, led to a deep respect and awareness of the broader environment. This was described as a gradual awakening to the beauty of the local natural environment and the joy such recognition provided. Many came to see their garden as a refuge for native flora and fauna.
Wholeness or wellbeing
Wholeness, often expressed as wellbeing, was experienced in a range of forms and was frequently a time when many drew a deeper meaning from the garden. This was often likened to a form of spirituality.
Often described as therapeutic, the garden provided a means of relaxation, calm and a sense of peace. An ability to relax was perceived differently amongst participants. For those who did not readily relax it was often the ability of the garden to completely absorb their attention which enabled them to gain a sense of peace and calm.
It also provided an opportunity to forget any concerns of the day and achieve a sense of balance. Wellbeing could also be seen in achievement of a sense of self-satisfaction in gaining a desired result.
Frequently the garden was beneficial in recovery from periods of ill-health and recuperation from surgery. Within this context, one participant described the garden as a “relief valve”, for others it provided a strong incentive to regain physical activity. The garden offered a form of resilience, a powerful means of coping in the face of grief.
The significance of the garden frequently shaped the lives of participants in profound ways and for many such a connection was likened to a personal form of spirituality or religious experience.
Many participants expressed a greater sense of self-awareness, of themselves in relation to others and to the environment. For some participants, in later stages of life, working in the garden created a means to focus on priorities. The garden came to represent a tool which helped them to deal with and make sense of the world. Many participants observed that their whole sense of wellbeing was tied up with the garden.
Some participants came to recognise a life force beyond their own, of which they were part, and through which they gained a greater sense of self. In this way, a connection with the garden was likened to spirituality and religious experience.
Joanne Adams recently completed her Master of Health Sciences thesis at La Trobe University and is applying for PhD candidature to continue her study into older gardeners and healthy models of ageing.Do you have an idea for a story?
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