Gardening has always been an interest of mine. I’ve always had more time than money, so gardening was an integral factor in my family’s access to healthy foods. When I decided to attend the Master Gardening classes at the Extension office, it was with the idea that maybe I could teach gardening to people as a way of helping people who couldn’t otherwise afford it to grow their own healthy food.
Over the years I’ve come to see gardening as much more than access to food. I recently wrote a short paper on the range of environmental factors that influence health. I may share that once the semester is over or I may submit it for publication elsewhere. It is all full of footnotes and citations and not something I would normally share on this blog. While I was working on this, in my brain it suddenly clicked for me how many different ways gardening can help people meet their health needs.
So I have decided to start incorporating my sustainability studies into my work with clients. As my dear friend Margi puts it, I am a lumper. One of the ways I will do this is to provide them with an individualized garden plan and guidance on creating their own wellness garden.
I don’t think that the wellness garden model has to be the same for everyone. Perhaps a community healing garden, could be established at a local park? Container gardening on an apartment balcony is an option, as well. Perhaps clients could collaborate; creating more connections? I envision myself hosting free preparation classes and plant swapping parties for clients in the future. I will be offering up free starts from my teaching garden. There is no reason one should ever have to pay for an herbal preparation. They are simply too easy to do for yourself.
Each client’s wellness garden will be designed according to specific needs, but with the idea that gardening will have the following universal benefits:
1. Connection to Place Traditionally, it was common for migrating populations to carry medicinal and seed plants with them in their wanderings. This is ancient wisdom and one of the ways humans have managed to disperse our plant friends all over the world. Recent research affirms that creating a familiar landscape can help people acclimate to new surroundings.
Gardening may also help people to connect to their community in concrete ways. They might work in a community garden plot or share extra produce with their neighbors. By attending local gardening talks and plant sales, they may create connections with people who share a common interest, as well. The closing ritual at the Midwest Women’s Herbal Conference involved everyone bringing seeds to the gathering, mixing them and sending small pouches home, with each attendant, for sowing. It was such a lovely tangible way to create connection.
2. Stress Reduction While any form of relaxation can help one shift down, it seems that gardening may have greater impact. In a study published in the Journal of Health Psychology in 2011 researchers stated that: “Thirty allotment gardeners performed a stressful Stroop task and were then randomly assigned to 30 minutes of outdoor gardening or indoor reading on their own allotment plot. Salivary cortisol levels and self-reported mood were repeatedly measured. Gardening and reading each led to decreases in cortisol during the recovery period, but decreases were significantly stronger in the gardening group. Positive mood was fully restored after gardening, but further deteriorated during reading.”
3. Exercise How beneficial gardening is obviously depends on the level of activity involved. Someone who works for hours a day in their garden derives more benefit than someone who only spends 10-15 minutes a day weeding and harvesting, but anything that gets people up off the couch and moving is worthwhile.
4. Self-Sufficiency If our goal as herbalists is to give the medicine back to the people, we need to make recommendation such that our clients are able to grow and harvest their own food and herbs for wellness. My studies have led me to believe that using permaculture methods to design “wellness gardens” is the optimal method of doing so because it is far less labor intensive than conventional gardening.
5. Environmental Healing Gardens based on ecological design heal the planet. They create pockets of wellness in the ecosystem and promote mutually beneficial relationships with other creatures healing the rift between humans and nature. This to me is an integral part of creating wellness. Humans are only one part of a much larger system and until the integrity of that system is restored, we can never truly be well.
6. Creating a Sense of Engagement As a rather disillusioned Occupier, I have come to the unpleasant reality that very little we do will effect systematic change. To say that is disheartening would be an understatement. However for many people, myself included, gardening becomes a form of activism. As guerrilla gardener Ray Finley so eloquently put it in a recent TedTalk: “Gardening is the most therapeutic and defiant act you can do, especially in the inner city. Plus, you get strawberries.”
7. Economy Even those who are truly reticent may change their tune when they realize the savings involved in growing your own herbs, growing your own nutrient rich fruits and vegetables and making your own herbal preparations.
I recognize the importance of meeting clients where they are. I know not everyone wants to garden or has a space where they are able to grow food. Also there will always be those people who are so pressed for time that adding more work to their schedule would not be health promoting. So as a back-up, practicing herbalists should have access to a teaching garden as a place where they can help those clients understand that healing comes from the Earth and not from a store.