Cheaper than Therapy (And You Get Tomatoes)
In his 1965 book Countryman, nature journalist Hal Borland deftly captured a sentiment shared by many home gardeners the world over. “Knowing trees,” he wrote, “I understand the meaning of patience. Knowing grass, I can appreciate persistence.” There is no arguing with this observation. Particularly when one is referring to crabgrass, and particularly when it has chosen to nestle cozily among the roots of one’s favorite rose bush.
Nevertheless, as much as this statement may resonate with some, others may be too far removed from nature to fully appreciate the truth of it. More than half of all people in the world now live in cities, say global think tanks, and this trend is not expected to reverse. In fact, by 2050, urban areas may contain as many people as now make up the entire planet’s population.
With this in mind, global non-profits such as the New Cities Foundation hope to find innovative ways to make green spaces more accessible to the burgeoning population of urbanites. Of course, city planners have always been pretty good about sprinkling the vast cement seas with a variety of parks, community gardens and other landscaped islands. New York, by some counts, has more than 700 community gardens. But is the occasional oasis of green enough? How important is it for people to have a garden to call their own?
One study published in the June 2012 issue of the Journal of Environmental Psychology argues that individual household gardens are very important—in fact, their value, especially in urban settings, may be routinely overlooked by policymakers. Undertaken by a team of researchers from the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand, the study finds that “gardens matter, they constitute substantial proportions of the urban fabric, provide opportunities for supporting and interacting with nature and provide a range of social and health benefits.”
It’s true that multiple studies reveal people reap great physical and mental health benefits from nature in general. For instance, in comparison to patients in hospital rooms with brick wall views, patients with tree views have been shown to require statistically shorter stays and less medication. Other studies have shown improved coping ability for psychiatric patients after exposure to natural environments. But beyond simple exposure, argue the researchers, “actual physical contact with nature has been shown to be essential.”
Most research tends to focus on the benefits for those who are ill or elderly, but children have also been identified as a group for which hands-on contact is essential—and some schools are responding with on-site student gardening projects. These may be mainly ornamental in some cases, while in others they supply some of the produce used in the school's lunch program.
Certainly school and community gardens are important ways to provide intimate contact with nature (as well as providing social opportunities) but encouraging domestic gardens may be another important step for urban planners to consider. Although they are “curiously under-researched,” say experts in the emerging field of ecopsychology, domestic gardens attract and support native wildlife while also offering urban dwellers a host of important social and emotional benefits. The results of the Dunedin study suggest that these include the mental and physical health benefits attached to having: escape from the stresses of daily life, a sense of ownership and identity, a connection to nature, and a place for social sharing between family, friends and neighbors. Participants also referred to increased satisfaction derived from taking personal responsibility for environmental care and producing food for their household.
“Some saw gardening as a duty to nature,” wrote the researchers. And while some householders grew vegetables primarily to connect to the earth, for others it eased financial burdens or provided a source of chemical-free produce. Several respondents commented that they had learned a great deal about native plants while developing their gardens and expressed interest in using them to support native birds and other animals.
The garden’s influence on social relationships was also illustrated through a variety of comments from study participants. One grandparent said his garden was a point of communication with a grandson, who had lately been “in trouble.” Others talked about connections made through flower shows, gardening groups, produce swaps with neighbors—even “letting neighboring children pick flowers for their Mum.”
The benefits of the domestic urban garden seem unbounded indeed. And while some city dwellers will always need to “go to nature” for their daily dose of green, even some high-rise occupants may be able to put their hands into a small patch of dirt without leaving home. All it takes is a balcony with access to a few hours of sunshine per day to put together a container garden large enough to hold a tomato plant and a few flowers. Is it worth the trouble, though? The answer suggested by the research is a resounding “yes.” That is, provided one would welcome even small improvements to physical and mental health.
And perhaps a home-grown tomato or two.