There is a world of scientific (and some not-so scientific) research that illuminates many of the notions that we have about the gardening experience. For instance, we know that we feel better when we spend time in the natural environment of a conservation area, urban park or in our back yard: but why?
I don’t have all of the answers, but my review of the research provides some good news. Here is a summary of my winter reading so far:
1. Winning the lottery. A study by the University of Chicago psychologist, Marc Berman, of 31,000 Torontonians revealed that they feel healthier when surrounded by trees in the urban environment. In fact, 10 additional trees per city block increased the study subjects’ health perception by as much as $10,000 in extra income (like winning a small lottery!). The researchers were not interested in city parks. They really wanted to know about trees that line our city streets, the ones that residents would see every day.
2. Better memory. The same study established that, while participants felt $10,000 wealthier it also made them feel healthier. Why? “My guess is that a few different mechanisms are at play,” Bergman said. He continues to work on this.
Bergman adds that, “When individuals are fatigued and need a break, we find that brief walks in nature can improve memory and attention by 20%.” He postulates that planting trees, shrubs and gardens likely improves our physical health.
3. Happiest while gardening. According to Meik Wiking, CEO of the Danish Happiness Research Institute, Copenhagen is one of the happiest cities in the world. He has researched how we interact socially and has discovered that healthy social relationships are one of the best predictors of how happy people are. He discovered that an increase in awareness of doing something good for others benefits our own satisfaction. A group in his community established a community garden that provides food to others who have limited access to fresh produce. He describes this effort as a meaningful way for people to meet one another while doing something good for others. He confirms something that I have known for some time: community and allotment gardens bring people together in a healthy way that benefits them at every level. Health, attitude and a general enhancement of well being get a lift.
4. Plants talk. We have known for a long time that plants interact with one another, especially where invasions of insects and severe weather are concerned. A recent study at the University of Missouri has discovered that different plants react differently to the type of insect harming them. Landscape Trades reports that a plant can recognize attacks from diverse kinds of insects, such as caterpillars and aphids. Jack Schultz, director of Bond Life Sciences Centre at MU and co-author of the study explains, “There are over 28,000 genes in the plant [arabidopsis] and we detected 2,778 genes responding to attacks depending on the type of insect. These genes control processes like root growth, water use and other ecologically-significant processes that plants carefully monitor and control.” The expectation is that plant researchers can use this information when developing insect resistant crops.
5. Boosted immunity. The aforementioned Marc Berman and Daniel J Hayes from the University of Chicago have established through recent research that there is now considerable evidence that supports the thesis that there are beneficial effects that nature can have on an individual’s cognitive functioning and health. There is a ‘central pathway’ for how nature improves health through enhanced immune functioning. They suggest that public policy to implement green spaces with plants, soil and moving water in public areas is an inexpensive public health intervention that could save many dollars in our public health system.
6. Green participation prescriptions. A British review of research data dating back to 1998 suggests that there is growing evidence that ‘gardening is good for you’. It found gardening promotes mental wellbeing and that it can be an effective preventative health measure. The Garden magazine reports that increased interest in health has focused attention on the activity of gardening as it relates to improved mental and physical well being. The result of this heightened awareness has spurred organisations like the Royal Horticultural Society to implement programs like ‘Health, Happiness and Horticulture’. The program, now in its second year, will feature a display at the Hampton Court Palace Flower show in July.
All of this is to say that, as scientific surveys and studies mount up, so does evidence that gardens and the activities associated with gardening affect humans in myriad of positive ways. There seems, I believe, to be no downside.