20 October 2019 is National Garden Day and we have 21 reasons why gardening is good for your health

Forget expensive gym memberships. Get stuck into your garden for great health, fitness and wellbeing benefits – for free, says Sally Nex.

There’s really nothing like the joy of gardening

Connecting to nature, the pride of growing your own plants, flowers, food and of course, the amazing health benefits, which is why on Sunday 20 October the call to action for South Africa’s annual Garden Day is to down tools, invite neighbours, friends and family round to celebrate your garden together.

Enthusiasts are encouraged to show their support by making and wearing flower crowns, and hosting a celebratory event

It could be tea and cake, a glass of umqombothi, a plant swap or lunch on the lawn… as long as you’re surrounded by greenery and toasting the goodness our gardens give us all year round.

Next time you’re feeling under the weather – a few aches and pains or just stressed out and down in the dumps, don’t reach for a packet of pills – grab your garden fork instead.

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We’ve gathered evidence from dozens of studies into how gardening affects your health and there’s only one conclusion: gardening is incredibly good for you

Twenty minutes planting up a pot with, say, bulbs and spring bedding de-stresses you after a hard day’s work and wards off depression.

Mow the lawn regularly and you’ll shed a few pounds, stave off heart disease and even halve your chance of getting Alzheimer’s disease.

Get an allotment and you’ll eat better too, putting you among the healthiest in the population. Garden regularly and you’ll be fitter, slimmer and happier than someone who doesn’t – you’ll even live longer.

Gardening is so beneficial it’s available on the NHS in the UK. It’s estimated one in five doctors now practise ‘social prescribing’, sending patients for regular gentle activities such as community gardening to prevent diseases like diabetes and dementia, and tackle social ills such as isolation.

There’s no better excuse to get out into the garden – it’s doctor’s orders!

We’ve put together 21 gardening prescriptions that you can use to improve your health right now

1. Fitness: Whether you spend five minutes or a whole day gardening, all the stretching, pulling, pushing and lifting will help you and your garden stay in great shape

2. Balance: Planting containers (sitting); pruning, raking and mowing (standing). Light physical exercise encourages good balance. Regular gardeners are 30% less likely to have falls than other adults.

3. Dexterity: Sowing seeds, pinching out seedlings, deadheading, planting broad beans. Fiddly gardening tasks hone fine motor skills, such as the ‘pincer’ movements you make when fastening a button or writing. One study found that women in Korea developed better dexterity after gardening twice a week than a non-gardening group.

School gardening clubs teach children fine motor skills through tasks such as transplanting seedlings and tying in tomatoes

4. Coordination: Potting up seedlings, deadheading, watering with a watering can. Complex gardening activities demand good coordination. Stroke survivors, autistic children and patients with Alzheimer’s develop better connections between hand and eye after gardening.

Craig Lister runs the Green Gym programme of guided gardening sessions created by The Conservation Volunteers. “It’s strength with control,” he says. “Unlike in a regular gym where you don’t have a fixed control. [In the garden] if you want to pick up something, you’ve got to control it at the same time.”

Good hand-eye coordination also affects other areas of life too, as it’s been linked to cognitive ability and social skills

5. Cardio fitness: Medium intensity activities such as mowing, raking, hoeing and weeding gets us off our sofas and increases physical health by an average 33%, with knock-on benefits for rates of heart disease and diabetes.

Half an hour pushing a lawnmower burns 150 calories – equivalent to a moderate gym session – and unlike gym membership, you don’t give it up after a month

6. Flexibility: Pricking out seedlings, tying in sweet peas, planting hanging baskets means you’re constantly bending down and stretching up when you’re gardening, and that helps keep joints supple and flexible.

Gardeners who garden at least once a week stay more mobile for longer. During ‘Sow and Grow’, a three-year outreach programme, horticultural therapy charity Thrive used techniques like tabletop gardening and adapted tools so visitors with mobility-limiting disabilities such as multiple sclerosis could keep gardening. As a result, they found mobility improved measurably.

7. Strength: Digging, wheeling wheelbarrows, raking, hoeing, cutting hedges, planting trees, the more intense activities in gardening – the ones that make you really sweat, like raking up leaves – do wonders for upper body strength. Chief medical officers in the UK list gardening alongside weight training and sit ups as activities for strengthening muscles. In the USA, elderly gardeners are shown to have stronger hands than the norm.

The Green Gym’s Craig Lister says gardening goes even further. “People are continuing to be more physically active even when they’re not volunteering at a Green Gym session,” he says.

8. Patience: Sowing seed, striking cuttings, growing seasonal crops like strawberries “teaches you to slow down,” says Sara Venn, who runs community food-growing movement Incredible Edible Bristol. “People come here and sow a seed, then a week later they ask, where is it? If you’re going to work on the land, you have to go at nature’s pace.”

Children learn to appreciate patience through waiting for crops to ripen in school gardening projects, and are taught ‘stickability’ – seeing a project through to the end. Gardening can also help calm children with attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder.

9. Well-being: Not only can gardening lower stress levels and reduce mental health issues such as depression, it also boosts confidence and provides a sense of pride

10. Relieve stress: Pottering about: pruning, deadheading; enjoying being outside… we all know how relaxing it is pottering in the garden. Levels of the stress hormone cortisol reduce after half an hour on the allotment and the larger your garden, the less stressed you are likely to be.

“We have people arriving saying, ‘I don’t know why I’m here, I’ve had a terrible morning’,” says Sara Venn. “Then we give them a trowel and 20 minutes later they say, ‘Oh, that’s better’.”

Just looking at a garden reduces stress: hospital patients with views of green space recover more quickly

11. Lift your mood: Planting, sowing seed and mixing up compost simply makes you happier. Allotment gardeners reported improvement in mood after just one session at the plot while our own Happiness Report in 2013 found gardeners are consistently happier than non-gardeners. At Glasgow’s National Spinal Injuries Unit, nurses noticed that patients were calmer after the garden was opened by charity Horatio’s Garden in 2016. “Once patients began getting outside, the levels of difficult behaviour fell markedly,” says charity founder Olivia Chapple.

The secret of gardeners’ happiness could lie in the soil: mice show increased levels of serotonin – the ‘happiness hormone’ – when exposed to soil bacteria.

12. Boost social contact: Getting an allotment, volunteering at a community garden often means that local residents work alongside schoolchildren, as well as visually impaired and socially isolated people. Gardening with other people is immensely powerful. Community gardening embraces those who can feel socially excluded, like the elderly, ex-offenders and refugees, combating loneliness and increasing mental well-being.

13. Self esteem: Growing produce, redesigning flower beds, spending a day in the garden… just five minutes gardening outside gives you an improved sense of self-esteem, but it’s highest after a full day’s gardening.

Children involved in after-school gardening clubs develop the confidence to overcome their fear of touching creatures such as worms or beetles, while Dr Jemma Hawkins at Cardiff Met University found female allotment holders in particular felt an increase in self-esteem. “It was that sense of providing for their families by taking home fruit and vegetables,” she says.

Celebrating the gardening work of children who are normally disruptive in an assembly made them less unruly in class.

14. Nurturing instinct: Raising plants from seed, watering, fertilising, pruning, nursing sick plants all support the theory of biophilia that suggests we have evolved an innate attraction to nature and that we seek out living things.

Dr Alistair Griffiths has been exploring the nurturing instinct as part of the RHS’s Health, Happiness and Horticulture initiative. “Germination seems to be a very powerful thing,” he said. “You’re creating something new. You can do that no matter how little money you’ve got.”

Elderly people in a care home who were given a houseplant to tend lived longer than a control group whose plant was looked after by the nurses.

15. Purpose: “Tending plants can literally give people a reason to get out of bed in the morning,” says Kathryn Rossiter, head of gardening therapy charity Thrive. “It’s the satisfaction of knowing that you made it happen.” Having something to be responsible for is one of the reasons people give for gardening. Horticulture is often used in prisons to give inmates meaningful activity, which, in turn, improves behaviour. For older people, it gives a new sense of purpose, helping combat loneliness.

16. A sense of pride: People who grow food feel particularly proud of themselves. Schoolchildren in gardening clubs gain a feeling of achievement with the gardens they create, and there’s also pride to be gained in overcoming failures.

17. Health: The more time spent in the garden, the more you will boost your overall mental and physical well-being, leading to a healthier and happier life for you and those around you

Improve your air: NASA, when experimenting with plants to clean air in space stations, found that one plant per 100 sq. feet was enough to reduce indoor pollutants such as formaldehyde and carbon monoxide. Spathiphyllum (peace lily) absorbs the widest range of chemicals, while outside, urban trees like holm oaks absorb particulates and nitrogen dioxide.

Office workers who have houseplants on their desks are 15% more productive than those who don’t.

Vitamin D: the ‘sunshine vitamin’, is essential for healthy bones, but one in five adults aren’t getting enough.

18. Improve your diet: Just one in five people eat the recommended five portions of fruit and vegetables a day; most manage just three.

19. Keep your brain alert: Concentrating on absorbing tasks in the garden like measuring out fertiliser, pricking out, and working out planting distances, really sharpens the mind. Children do better at mental tasks when they have access to green space, while students report better academic performance if they have a view dominated by plants rather than buildings and pavements.

Researchers call the kind of attention we give to our gardens ‘fascination’ – the non-goal-oriented, effortless concentration of total immersion. “When we are highly attentive, especially to nature, the mental chatter stops,” says Professor Jules Pretty.

20. Fight dementia: Dementia sufferers stay calmer in a well-designed garden. “Design can instill identity during times of crisis,” says therapeutic gardens designer David Kamp. The garden he created at Trevarna House in Cornwall features year-round, multi-sensory planting, and ‘memory plants’ – residents’ favourites that jog their memories.

Aggressive outbursts reduce by 19% in care homes with gardens, and just being outside helps Alzheimer’s sufferers sleep better at night. Gardening may even ease dementia: memory loss in patients with Alzheimer’s has been shown to slow after gardening.

21. Reduce screen time: We are spending more time inside than ever before, with British teenagers online for an average 7,5 hours a day. Gardening directly counters this ‘nature deficit disorder’: children involved with gardening clubs are better behaved in class and generally more physically active. “The pernicious nature of TV, gaming and the internet is what people escape from when they garden,” says Dr Sam Everington.

Increase energy: The more physical activity you do, the more energy you have. Cardiac patients found they had more energy after gardening, while allotment holders were measurably invigorated after just half an hour. Gardening helps you bounce out of bed, too. The BBC2 programme Trust Me, I’m a Doctor found gardeners in The Conservation Volunteers’ Green Gym had a 20% improvement in cortisol awakening response – the healthy spike in stress hormones that gets you going in the morning.

Ready… steady… grow!

Taking part in Garden Day couldn’t be easier: visit www.gardenday.co.za to download a toolkit with hints, tips and how-to videos, all aimed at helping your create the perfect celebration. And don’t forget to join the movement by following @GardenDaySA on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

Share your Garden Day celebrations on social media by tagging @GardenDaySA and using #GardenDaySA.