Healthy Gardening

Patricia L. Fry

Do you give your yard a lick and a promise once a month purely out of respect for the neighbors? Do you enjoy gardening, but seldom take time to dig in the dirt? Maybe you need a new perspective on gardening to motivate you.

Gardening affords you access to the fresh air and exercise you need. It’s a wonderful, creative outlet. To many people, gardening is also therapeutic. One friend says, “When I’m angry or upset about something, I go out and pull weeds. When I’m depressed or sad, I putter with the plants. To me, gardening is comforting, and I always leave my garden feeling better.”

Mary is a cancer patient and an avid gardener. She says, “My garden is my therapy. It’s constant renewal. Working in my garden or just walking through it after work slows me down and helps me to refocus my thoughts.”

What these two women experience is real, and it can be measured. Re-search studies show a direct correlation between time spent in a natural setting and stress reduction. Tests performed at public gardens, for example, revealed that visitors typically experienced a reduction in blood pressure and heart rate while they were in the garden.

You don’t have to be ill, angry, or stressed to reap the benefits of gardening, however. A garden is filled with gifts. It offers daily surprises. Start working regularly in your garden and you’ll find innumerable treasures in your own backyard.

Plant a Memory Garden

Nothing triggers the memory like familiar scents. What memories does the scent of freshly mown lawn conjure up for you? What about the fragrance of pine needles on damp ground, sage warmed by the sun or magnolia, jasmine, or honeysuckle blooms?

What plants and garden designs hold good memories for you? My mother planted a syringa in her yard because she remembers wearing its white flowers in her hair as a child. My grandmother used to bring me bouquets of sweet peas from her yard when I was a young homemaker. I continue the tradition with my daughters.

Whether it’s a fern garden that warms your heart, a lavender rosebush, or colorful dahlias, plant them in your own garden for the sake of good memories.

A Contemplation Garden

Design a garden for relaxation, privacy, and thoughtful reflection. “Create niches throughout your garden,” says Arizona-based landscape architect Christy Ten Eyck. “We tend to make these big patio spaces right up next to the house. I like to create little retreats farther away from the house so that you are totally enveloped by plants.”

She recommends creating a feeling of serenity by making it a multisensory experience. “Think about what it would take for the area to be visually pleasing and then think about fragrance, sound, and touch. If you live by a busy street, you can do a small fountain, and that really helps mitigate the noise,” Ten Eyck says.

You might want to use a reflecting ball in your contemplation garden, a favorite outdoor sculpture, a special stone or seashells, and of course a bench or gliding chair. The idea behind a contemplation garden is to create a quiet, private, beautiful space where you can go and read, pray, or just be.

Healing Gardens

We all need healing at some time, whether we’re experiencing a low mood, grieving a loss, or suffering a serious illness. Although Ten Eyck is right in saying that “every garden is a healing garden,” there are meaningful touches you can give your garden to make it especially healing for you.

For a grieving person, for example, plant something that has a cycle-that flowers, produces interesting seed pods, and then reseeds-as this helps mark the passage of time. It also implies hopefulness. A small bridge in a garden helps create the feeling of transition. A pond or stream is soothing.

Patio fountains come in all sizes and shapes these days, but Ten Eyck suggests keeping it small and simple. “It doesn’t have to have a filter and pump,” she says. “It could simply be part of your irrigation system-a little area for the birds where water wells up in a bowl.”

Adele Seronde, of Sedona, Arizona, founder of Gardens for Humanity, suggests creating a waterless river where it’s particularly arid. Line a shallow trench with blue stones or tiles to create the illusion of a stream flowing through your garden.

The Therapeutic Garden

Horticultural therapy is a fast-growing occupation. More and more colleges offer it in their curriculum, and countless hospitals are adding therapeutic gardening programs to their services. The Rusk Institute of Rehabilitation Medicine at the New York University Medical Center and the Kluge Children’s Rehabilitation Center at the University of Virginia both offer horticultural therapy programs.

“The natural environment is restorative,” says Nancy Chambers, director of the horticultural therapy program at Rusk. “You don’t have to expend energy to get the restorative value in the garden.” But they do have an extensive therapeutic program for patients recovering from brain and spinal cord surgery, as well as cancer and cardiac patients. Patients typically derive more benefit from horticultural therapy because the activities are more pleasant. Who wouldn’t rather walk along garden paths than through sterile hospital hallways or prune a plant instead of squeeze a tennis ball?

The same is true with the children at Kluge. According to senior therapeutic recreation specialist Maureen Oswald, “If the kids are doing something functional-something that makes sense to them–they’re more motivated to complete the task.”

Horticultural therapy programs aren’t restricted to institutions. You can provide gardening opportunities for disabled family members right in your own backyard. Build raised beds and wheelchair ramps for easy access. Look into companies that offer special gardening tools for those with disabilities. Plant things that are easy and fun to grow, such as sunflowers, marigolds, tomatoes, and snow peas.

Specialty Gardening

Develop a theme garden. Design an Oriental, tropical, or Southwestern garden, for example. Plant according to color-use all white-flowering plants, focus on yellows, or plant a bed of pastels.

If you don’t have traditional yard space, you can’t have a traditional garden. But you can still have a garden. I have a friend who grows seasonal vegetables in pots and planter boxes on her small patio. Raise orchids, begonias, fuchsias, or some other specialty potted plant.

Consider starting a garden-related business: grow succulents and make wreaths to sell at Christmastime, or grow herbs for sale to gourmet restaurants.

The Vegetable Garden

Vegetable gardens can be grown both in summer and winter in some locations. Experiment with what your family will eat and what will grow in your space. In my own yard, snow peas grow prolifically in one area and not in another. Don’t give up on your favorite vegetable when it fails without trying it in another spot.

One of my neighbors grows vegetables in her front yard. She creates interest by intermingling tall stands of flowers with the vegetables. Cosmos surround the birdbath and provide a pretty backdrop for her bean tepee. There’s a colorful morning glory spiraling up a post toward the bird feeder. Sunflowers stand guard over a lone cantaloupe, a smattering of strawberry plants, and some squash. And she has flowers known to attract butterflies.

Some vegetables don’t need a lot of room to grow. Plant tomatoes, bell peppers, soybeans, and other bush beans, as well as strawberries, in patio pots. Herbs also do well in pots or in the ground, and there are many uses for them. Cook with them or use them dried in a variety of crafts.

Additional Tips

Gardening, although work, can and should bring pleasure in the doing. Here are the experts’ best tips for enjoying the process as much as the results.

  • Maintain a manageable garden to avoid stress or feeling guilty for not being able to keep up with it.

  • Pace yourself to accomplish a couple of noticeable things each gardening session without suffering burnout. If you take on too large a task and overdo, your garden may lose its appeal.
  • Garden from scratch to save money and to feed your self-esteem. Use seeds, sprouts, and starts from other plants in your yard. Start a neighborhood plant swap.
  • Plant so that you always have something to look forward to and something to enjoy.

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