Cultivating a healthy mind and body

In National Gardening Week, you'd expect a little more sunshine and temperatures to match. But, let's not allow the weather to get in the way. Gardening is good for the soul and helps to keep us fit. That's official. Numerous studies have found clear health and wellbeing benefits.

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Gardening can bring about positive changes in the lives of people living with disabilities or ill health, or who are isolated, disadvantaged or vulnerable. It features in the fantastic work carried out at our local Dementia Resource Centre, which we've been privileged to support through working parties to keep the communal gardens in shape. It's very much at the heart of the philosophy of wonderful community growing spaces such as the Green Backyard and the Olive Branch, here in our city. 

In a strongly multi-cultural community, gardening brings people together to share in a common experience, where they can exchange ideas and learn together. It has the potential to teach people how to grow their own food, learn about business opportunities through growing flowers, herbs or keeping bees. It can help to reconnect people with the simple joys of getting their hands dirty, nurturing their crops, and cooking healthy, home-grown food. We've watched families and friends come together in the process, relationships refreshed.

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The benefits of gardening are seemingly endless, both mentally and physically. Not only can planting bulbs, digging trenches and pruning roses vastly improve your physical health, but it can also improve mental health too. 

Gardens are often thought of as intimate private spaces attached to private households but they can also be large private or formal gardens open to the public, or part of hospitals, care homes or hospices. Gardens serve many purposes: they can be cultivated for flowers or growing food; used as spaces for exercise, relaxation, solace and recovery; used as places to play, meet and volunteer; and can be part of wider environmental, planning or sustainability policies.

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Half of the adult population in England report being involved in gardening, and it is an important activity throughout our lives, reaching a peak just after retirement and declining as we age further. However, as we age it becomes relatively more important as other pastimes and activities reduce more quickly. Gardens are therefore important to our health due to the numbers of people who engage with them in many different ways and for different reasons.

Increasing people’s exposure to, and use of, green spaces has been linked to long-term reductions in overall reported health problems such as heart disease, cancer and musculoskeletal conditions; it has also been linked to reduced levels of obesity and high physical activity, and higher self-rated mental health. Living in areas with green spaces also seems to weaken the effect of income inequalities on health. Gardens can provide other important environmental functions, such as reducing flood risk and moderating climate and pollution, which have knock-on benefits for health.

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These are just some of the positive reasons why engagement with gardening and greenspace management ticks all the right boxes for companies that are looking to add value, to demonstrate a genuine commitment to Corporate Social Responsibility. Given our own drive to be purpose-focused, we're looking at engaging isolated communities, including recent refugees from Syria, in growing together sessions; building a circular economy around the repurposing and reuse of garden tools through a 'sharpen up' project, aimed at providing a sociable environment in which retired people can meet and work together.

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Looking to the next generation of gardeners, there are exciting opportunities to engage children through school gardening activities. Studies suggest that children’s fruit and vegetable intake can be significantly increased combined with efforts to improve parental support; a further range of studies points to increased knowledge, and preferences for fruit and vegetables. Teachers report positive wellbeing effects, personal achievement and pride in ‘growing’ and, where volunteers are involved, gardening can be a way to break down social boundaries inherent in academic settings. For children with learning difficulties or behavioural problems, gardening as a non-academic task and the garden as a place of peace and meditation are particularly valuable. Of course, we recognise that so much more needs to be done: to make the space and time available for gardening within the teaching day. With initiatives such as the Eco-Schools network, with 18,000 registered schools in England, alone; we're heading in the right direction!

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With all this talk of gardening, even if it's a bit grey overhead, we're taking a break to enjoy a hour or two of pottering in our little patch of green. After all, those seeds won't plant themselves...

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