The health benefits of gardening and why now is the perfect time to start planting

·10-min read
Catherine Shirley with daughter Lily in their garden in Croydon, south London - Clara Molden for The Telegraph 
Catherine Shirley with daughter Lily in their garden in Croydon, south London - Clara Molden for The Telegraph

Just like Mole in The Wind in the Willows, there is a moment in spring when we want to abandon the confines of our homes and rush out into the open air. There we can bathe in the spring sunshine, inhale air rich with the scent of blossom and look up at a sky the colour of forget-me-nots.

A romantic notion it may be, but this year in particular it is something we all yearn for. Being confined to barracks for months on end heightens our appreciation of the great outdoors and over the past 12 months more and more of us have come to understand just what a garden can offer.

Yes, it is an outdoor room – albeit a roofless one that is open to the elements – but it is also our touchstone with nature, with the earth that supports us, and a chance to connect with reality.

Make no mistake, powerful though advanced technology may be, screens and streaming, Zooms and Zooming, are simply no match for the scent of hyacinths and narcissi, the feel of damp earth on your fingers, and the fragrance of a freshly opened bag of compost. Earth quite literally grounds us; reminds us of our dependence upon it, not just for our food but also for our sanity.

Sales of vegetable seeds have soared of late, plant nurseries and garden centres – mercifully open even in lockdown – became places of pilgrimage; a chance to buy into a direct line of communication with mother earth, to care for wildlife and to care for ourselves.

If all this sounds fanciful, I make no apology. We may feel powerless as individuals to affect climate change on a global scale, but locally – with that little plot, or balcony, or allotment – we can make all the difference in the world; to our world.

Make this the year that you grow a few vegetables and herbs – even in a handful of pots or troughs. Sow a packet of seeds in a bed or border. Plant flowers whose brightness will lift your spirits and attract butterflies and bees; cultivate a square of earth to nourish your body and your soul, and you will discover the joy of growing things that simply cannot be matched by anything else.

Do not be put off by failures – we all have them. The joy and fulfilment is in the trying, and there is no better time to start gardening than at Easter: a time of renewal and of the emergence of new life – in your garden… and in your heart.

Tomé Morrissy-Swan meets three of the three million new gardeners

Catherine Shirley and Daphne Ranger, Croydon, south London

Until last March, Catherine Shirley hadn’t done much gardening, despite owning a garden in south London for a number of years. Apart from some pruning and cutting things back, she’d never embarked on ambitious projects. That changed when the pandemic hit and Shirley was forced to work from home.

When supermarkets thronged with panic buyers, Shirley, 39, was inspired to become more self-sufficient. “We thought, ‘How can we be a bit more sustainable, and have our own food supply?’’” says Shirley, who lives with her partner Giles and four-year-old daughter, Lily. “Come autumn, we had potatoes for weeks, fantastic kale, tomatoes as well. We saved some pennies and were really delighted at what we produced.”

Introducing Lily to gardening has been a highlight, Shirley explains. “It’s been a great way to get her involved and understanding, watching things grow from scratch.” Lily loves helping water the plants and harvest the vegetables. “She gets excited when she pulls a potato out of the ground – we had a huge one as big as her head. Kale is not the most popular among four-year-olds but she’s quite enjoyed eating it. It’s really satisfying to see.”

There have been multiple benefits for Shirley, too, including improving her gardening skills, speaking to neighbours more, often over the fence, and a newfound abundance of wildlife – caterpillars, butterflies and other insects have colonised the garden in greater numbers.

But she has gone somewhat further than most first-time gardeners, by founding Grow With John, an initiative run by the charity she works for, the John Whitgift Foundation. Founded in 1596, it focuses on education and care homes in Croydon, and Shirley thought gardening could benefit the community. The charity now sends plant-growing kits to its schools and care homes, in a bid to get people outdoors.

At the Whitgift House nursing home in South Croydon, residents have begun planting seedlings indoors – sweet peas, pansies, snapdragons – and daffodil and tulip bulbs outside.

Daphne Ranger: 'Being in the garden makes me feel human again' - Clara Molden for The Telegraph 
Daphne Ranger: 'Being in the garden makes me feel human again' - Clara Molden for The Telegraph

One resident who has greatly benefited is Daphne Ranger, 95. She has gardened since childhood, and when she first married in 1948, she moved into a house in Maidstone, Kent, with a quarter-acre garden. There was a large lawn, plenty of fruit trees and space for vegetables. “My husband was very keen on gardening, which was lucky, and I thoroughly enjoyed it,” says Daphne, who would make jams and chutneys with the garden’s bounty.

When the family moved to Croydon in Surrey, they took over an allotment, as their garden was small, but still planted lots of flowers, such as roses, sweet peas, marigolds and eschscholzia. “The soil’s not very good down here but we coped all right,” she says. “People used to admire my front garden.”

Daphne describes how, after living at the care home for six years and not being able to garden, the past year has helped her feel normal again. She has planted tulips, hyacinths and daffodils, and often takes cuttings of grasses for a vase in her room. “I feel human, if that makes sense. In here there are so many poor souls with dementia, and death is all around; when you go outside, you really feel normal. I’m 95, but I don’t feel it – or act it, so I’m told.”

Shirley, too, feels the mental and physical benefits of gardening, and believes this is why the foundation’s project is so important.

“During lockdown, older people suffered with loneliness and isolation. [Gardening] improves their mental health, their well-being, and they talk to others. There’s the excitement of planting, watching seeds sprout and grow. It’s a really great activity.”

Wendy Russell, Glasgow

Wendy Russell had never had a garden as an adult, until 10 years ago, when she moved to a new home in Cambuslang, near Glasgow. “I’d always dreamed of one. If I had one I would grow food, I had this vision where I’d be pottering around and loving life. When I got a house, my garden was really big, and I just didn’t know what to do with it.”

Every time the 41-year-old started, it quickly overwhelmed her, and plants would die. The failures reached the point where, four years ago, her father helped landscape the garden. It was divided into smaller, manageable sections, with an artificial turf lawn, which, she admits, “isn’t great but it’s low maintenance”. Yet she always knew she wanted to do something more.

Things changed last spring. In March, before the first lockdown and when gatherings were still allowed, she held a 40th birthday party. Covid-19 struck 16 attendees, and at the end of March, her father died.

A total of five family members would be killed by Covid-19 throughout the year, also including Russell’s mother.

A month later, a friend who worked for a nearby gardening charity called Grow 73 suggested Russell take up gardening. “She said it’s therapeutic, and really good when grieving to nurture something, make it stay alive and see it grow,” Russell recalls. “I said, ‘I’ll give it a go, but you know these will die.’”

Gardening has help Wendy Russell, pictured with daughter Mia, cope with grief  - Chris Watt Photography
Gardening has help Wendy Russell, pictured with daughter Mia, cope with grief - Chris Watt Photography

After waiting several weeks to plant what she was given by the friend at Grow 73 (“I was quite frightened to ruin it”), the warm spring inspired Russell to get her fingers green. Along with her daughter Mia, then 14, Russell planted sunflowers, peas, courgettes, carrots and more: “It gave me a focus, it kind of became an obsession, and it was really therapeutic.” She also planted colourful native wildflowers, which attracted insects and birds – “the place was buzzing”.

Indoors became a haven, too, after she brought back all the office plants, a range of succulents.

“The most fascinating thing for me was growing peas,” says Russell, whose husband hasn’t shared her new hobby.

“I was absolutely obsessed with watching the shoots grow. We’re spending a lot of time in the garden in lockdown, and I’d be sitting there for ages just watching these things. My daughter’s not really into vegetables, but she tried the peas, and couldn’t believe how sweet they were.”

Russell is preparing for more gardening this year, after enjoying the wildlife and culinary benefits. “Now that I’ve been successful last year, I have a wee bit more confidence. It gives you a sense of ownership, achievement, and purpose, especially within lockdown when we’re all struggling for motivation.”

Josh Mudway, Gloucestershire

“Until now the extent of my gardening was my dad making me pick weeds out of the driveway,” says Josh Mudway, 29. “That’s pretty much it. I detested it.”

Despite the laborious weeding, he wasn’t traumatised. As he grew up and travelled more, he gained a greater appreciation for nature and, when he found himself spending more time indoors, was inspired to give growing a go.

“I do quite like plants, and with much less to do, the garden centre became an interesting day out,” says Mudway. He had never had a garden as an adult, but in September moved to a cottage in Newnham, Gloucestershire, with his girlfriend, Libby. “There was a natural progression,” he explains.

Josh Mudway had never gardened until 2020 - Jay Williams 
Josh Mudway had never gardened until 2020 - Jay Williams

Initially he focused on houseplants, and an early trip to the garden centre saw him spend £200 on creeping ivy and spider plants – “I was like a kid in a candy shop.” He describes how plants make the rented place feel more homely: “it feels more yours.

“There’s also responsibility. People always said plants are hard work and I thought, ‘don’t be stupid’. [But] they are more work than I anticipated.”

Aside from scores of indoor plants, some of which are replanted offshoots of older ones, he is now turning his attention to resurrecting the veg patch in the garden. At 6ft x 10ft, it’s fairly big, and Mudway is growing aubergines, chillies, tomatoes and courgettes in a propagator.

He has been encouraged by the past year’s events to eat more local food, and as a keen cook wants to experiment with home-grown produce. “I’ve never eaten something I’ve grown before, so that will be an achievement.”

There are currently 90 pots being readied, and Mudway also plans to grow leeks, onions, red brussels sprouts, swiss chard, kale and yellow courgettes.

“It’s been great having something to do, to occupy your mind,” says Mudway.

“I do get a feel-good factor from keeping plants alive. You do form a bit of an attachment to them, but I haven’t gone as far as naming them.”

Resources for beginner gardeners

Instagram: @houseplantjournal

Where better than millennials’ favourite social media platform to find tips on house plants? Darryl Cheng hosts the popular @houseplantjournal.

YouTube: Charles Dowding

Charles Dowding has 434,000 subscribers thanks to his expertise at veg growing using the eco-friendly no-dig method.

Facebook: Gardening hints, tips and advice UK

This forum has 60,000 green-fingered members who swap hints and tips.

Book: RHS Gardening through the Year

Often, newbie gardeners cram all their efforts into spring and early summer. This bestseller guides you all year round.

What health benefits have you seen as a result of gardening? Tell us in the comments section below
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