Intuitively, we all know that spending time outdoors is healthy and there are plenty of studies that tell us why gardening is good for us, but why are gardens important in themselves?
Does spending time in any green space reap beneficial effects or does an ordered, well-managed and organised garden contribute more greatly to our sense of well-being?
I wanted to find out what the difference is between having a garden, as opposed to open fields or natural woodlands, and how significant a garden can be to quality of life, so I took myself off to trawl through reams of research in the hope of answering the question of why gardens are important. Here’s what I found out…
From self-sufficiency to designer ideals
The earliest gardens were important because they provided cordoned off, individual parcels of land that could be ‘unwilded’ through cultivation and used to provide food for families or small groups nearby their dwelling places. More akin to small holdings than what we would think of as gardens, they were created as practical, protected, functional growing spaces, only over time evolving into havens of relaxation, leisure and entertainment as we became more civilised and sophisticated, with less need for self-sufficiency.
Gardens in the sense that we would recognise them (i.e. created for more for pleasure than survival) have been recorded in Ancient Egypt as far as back as the 16th century B.C., as evidenced by glorious depictions of them discovered on the walls of tombs. The paradise gardens of Ancient Persia further consolidated the concept that gardens should be beautiful as well as practical and that design mattered. Their typical charbagh (a quartered rectilinear format) were laid out to recreate the Garden of Eden on earth, imbuing the visitor with a heavenly experience.
The often opulent design of paradise gardens would have represented a considerable expense to the gardens owner, whilst not serving any function crucial to their lives (with the exception of displaying power and status, perhaps, though this could have been displayed in many other forms) so why were they deemed so important? There is the element of a philosophical, religious focus in paradise gardens, but the Ancient Persians were not the only ones creating gardens at the time.
How much does the emphasis on order and beauty matter that distinguishes a garden from a natural outdoors space? It has been proven many times over that nature provides stress relief, soothes the troubled soul, improves and increases social connections, and encourages exercise, but are these benefits in any way enhanced by imposing some order on the chaos of nature through the creation of a garden?
Recent research suggests that it’s not just any old green space that makes the difference to our wellbeing, but that green space requires a few key qualities to invoke positive effects. It’s quality, not necessarily quantity, that counts.
A study in the journal BMC Public Health found no significance between the amount of green space in a person’s environment and the quality of their wellbeing. Now, while this particular study was looking at public green spaces rather than participants gardens, it would seem to imply that simply being surrounded by plant life isn’t enough and that some other quality must be present to enact a beneficial effect.
Following up on what the mysterious quality could be that elevates a natural space to a place of wellbeing, I discovered a Dutch study which found that green spaces that were perceived as having higher levels of accessibility and usability, which contributed to increased levels of satisfaction and wellness. Higher quality green spaces, and surely we can extrapolate from that, high-quality gardens, are what has a real impact on our on physical and psychological health.
What makes a high-quality garden?
Ushering my mind further along this explorative path, it seems logical that the next question begging to be asked was “So, what makes a high-quality garden?”.
On the subject of accessibility, we know that gardens which are difficult to get into, poorly lit and unkempt are seen as unsafe, unattractive and undesirable. Not exactly tempting to spend time in and certainly not conducive to boosting anyone’s mood. Just addressing poor access through the addition or updating of pathways, drives and entrances can transform your use and enjoyment of the garden. If a garden entrance isn’t welcoming or easy to use, then it becomes an irritation to be avoided. If you can’t get along the length of your garden with ease then it stands to reason that you are less likely to venture into it.
In the example below, the owners were unable to park both their cars next to the entrance to their garden and be able to open their car doors. A slight repositioning of their garden wall allowed easy access for both cars with room to open both car doors. A smart new gate and rose arch lifted the entrance, making it a delight, not a frustration, to enter the garden on their way to the house.
And what about usability? Is your garden usable? What would you like to use it for? Does it have a place to grow vegetables? Is there an area specifically for your children to play? What about entertaining and socialising? Eating al fresco? Do you want to use your garden for exercise? What would make that easier and more enjoyable? A yoga-deck? Swimming pond? Garden gym?
Perhaps you just want a beautiful place to repose, gazing at nodding blooms in the summer and frosted grasses in the winter. Is your garden giving you the opportunity to fulfil those desires?
Aesthetic and sensory factors contribute too. Oak sleeper beds not only make vegetable gardens more easily accessible (less bending down to ground level), but raise the look-and-feel from fuzzy, indistinct ‘patch’ to rustic, yet refined edibles area. The inclusion of water in a garden is also well-known to have a restful, tranquil effect to the senses. Imagine a crystal clear rill gently gliding through your garden or the sound of water bubbling over the sides of a perfectly placed container, fingers drifting lazily through the cool surface, creating ripples in a mini neptunian world.
And what about the plant content? Can the choice of plants in a garden have an affect on its importance to us? The answer is a resounding yes.
It is known that colour influences our mood with red promoting action and energy, where blue lends itself to calmness and a sense of stability. So, certainly the palette of flowers, berries and even foliage can impact how a garden makes us feel. So too, can a garden’s style. It’s no good having a gorgeously designed minimalist garden if it jars with your house or you secretly long for the blousy borders of a cottage garden.
Choice of genus, species and variety have also been proven to make a difference. Some research has found that including broadleaf trees such as beech, cherry, or field maple have a positive impact on our wellbeing. It’s not clear exactly why (or at least the paper I read didn’t make it clear) but I wonder whether these deciduous trees help us to connect with nature by visibly reflecting the changing seasons as the leaves change colour, are shed and then brought forth anew.
More to learn…
To sum up, gardens are important for many of the same reasons that natural outdoor environments are, they provide havens for wildlife, a sense of connection to the natural world and encourage physical activity, but gardens are especially important when it comes to our wellbeing in ways that few researchers have yet to clearly establish. Whilst there’s a large body of work on why gardening is good for us, there’s seems to be little to explain why just being in the garden or having a garden is important to our overall levels of happiness, contentment and psychological health. And yet, the few studies that I have found seem to point to the fact that a high-quality, well-designed and maintained garden offers a level of psychological, physical and mental wellbeing that plain, natural green spaces do not always bring.
One final factor I discovered in my quest to reveal why gardens are important, is one that I think it appropriate to end with. There is a link that suggests that we find gardens most beneficial to our feelings of happiness and contentment when they remind us (consciously or subconsciously) of good childhood experiences of nature. Play is good for us all no matter what our age and it’s important that a garden should represent some kind of playscape for children and adults alike, whether that be a garden studio for artists or cricket pitch for children.
Oh and you’re never too old to enjoy a treehouse or garden swing!
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