Book extract: The Joy of Gardening – Stuff.co.nz

book-extract:-the-joy-of-gardening-–-stuffco.nz

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SALLY TAGG/NZ GARDENER/StuffHug a tree. “There is unexpected intimacy in sidling up to a favourite tree and flinging your arms around its trunk, feeling the brush of its bark against your skin, the stoicism of its sapwood against your chest,” says Lynda Hallinan.We all seek a meaningful life. It is human nature to search for a sense of purpose beyond everyday existence, to want a reason for being aside from the imperative of biological reproduction. And even for a cynical middle-aged atheist like me, every act of gardening, from piling green waste into a compost bin to mounding up potatoes, requires faith that a greater power – call it God, Gaia, Mother Nature, Papatūānuku – is at work as well, their omnipresence as nourishing as the spuds we harvest. Even if you never try to grow a carrot, the thought that you could, were you simply to scatter seeds in a shallow trench of steaming soil in spring, is as spiritually encouraging as it is stomach-filling – the satiation of a physical and metaphorical hunger.SALLY TAGG/NZ GARDENER/StuffA sprouted kūmara, for harvesting runners, from Lynda’s garden. I started growing food two decades ago, initially dabbling with salad greens, lemons for cordial, mint for roast lamb, new season’s spuds, garlic and herbs. It wasn’t until the mid-2000s that I got serious about it. I made an ambitious New Year’s resolution to be self-sufficient for 12 months, growing everything I could and bartering my surplus produce to get my hands on anything I couldn’t. As editor of NZ Gardener at the time, I figured this self-inflicted torment would fill columns with amusing anecdotes. Today, I’m still filing my monthly record of Top and Flop Crops, a column that resonates with our readers when things go wrong – a single summer peacharine, a watercress crop downed by the dog, an explosive batch of apple cider – far more often than when they work out. I didn’t expect that growing fruit and vegetables would change my life, but it did. When I sold my cash crops at farmers’ markets, I met like-minded people trying to reduce their environmental footprint, eat seasonally, shop locally and feed their families wholesome, pesticide-free food. I made friends with local seed savers, organic farmers, brewers, beekeepers, butchers, sourdough bakers, cheesemakers, “good lifers” and boutique vege growers.SALLY TAGG/NZ GARDENER/Stuff'Beurre Bosc' and 'Doyenne du Comice' pears. The founding editor of NZ Gardener, J.W. Matthews, often lamented that the settler habit of making do – growing food to make jams, preserves, wine, cider – was falling by the wayside. “Today,” wrote Jim in 1966, “most of these products can be bought off grocer’s shelves, and many people have forgotten the virtues of ‘homemade’. Not only from the standpoint of economics, but for pure pleasure, there is much to be gained from using the products of one’s gardening skill. Is it not time we revived some of the old crafts which were part and parcel of good living?” Damn straight! Setting aside the obvious money-saving and nutritional benefits, harvesting sustenance from your own patch of soil is a many-splendoured joy. The entire process gives me the warm fuzzies, from the pride that comes from raising crops from seed to the parental accomplishment of watching them fulfil their genetic destiny. The satisfaction of eating what I have grown is intensified by the pleasure of sharing it – and the love bound into it. The relationship between gardens and health runs deeper than filling our fridges with homegrown produce, just as the physical exertion of gardening doesn’t fully explain the positive spinoff for our mental health.SALLY TAGG/NZ GARDENER/StuffWorking with nature means creating nourishing habitats for birds and beneficial insects. On a physiological level, gardening is beneficial because it gets us outdoors more often, boosting our vitamin D exposure, and gets us moving. As a low-impact exercise, gardening is good for heart health, improves balance, builds muscle tone, strengthens hand–eye coordination, maintains flexibility and helps us to sleep better when our tools are returned to the shed at night. Gardening is good for us for all the same reasons that playing outdoors is good for children: it lowers blood pressure, reduces cholesterol levels, counters obesity, improves concentration, frees the mind and is fun. Dutch researchers found that gardening for as little as 30 minutes relieves stress, causing a noticeable drop in cortisol levels. A study at the University of Colorado found that coming into contact with micro-organisms in soil boosts our body’s production of dopamine and serotonin. With our hands, we aren’t just digging for pleasure, we’re absorbing it through our skin.SALLY TAGG/NZ GARDENER/StuffSprinkling lettuce mixes and microgreen seeds in containers is an enriching – and easily achievable – way to supplement storebought produce with homegrown flavours. Some therapists believe that coming into contact with soil literally grounds us. It earths our nervous system and stimulates our parasympathetic nervous system, the part of our inbuilt fight-or-flight radar that lets our guard down when we are relaxed or resting. As biophysicist James L. Oschman noted in an article in The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, “It is rarely appreciated that human life evolved in direct contact with the earth’s surface. Until a few generations ago, humans walked and slept directly on the ground.” As he points out, now we wear shoes, live in apartments and work in offices disconnected from the earth. We’ve gone off the wrong grid. This sounds a bit wacky, but I’ve never had a bad night’s kip in a tent, even on the cheapest of camping mattresses rolled out on the ground. And I always sleep like a log after a hard day of garden slog. British-born neurologist and naturalist Oliver Sacks, in his essay The healing power of gardens, wrote that gardens are restorative and curative, and can be more powerful than any medication. “In forty years of medical practice, I have found only two types of non-pharmaceutical ‘therapy’ to be vitally important for patients with chronic neurological diseases: music and gardens.”SALLY TAGG/NZ GARDENER/Stuff'Slenderette' carrots. But is it possible to quantify how much better we feel after spending time in the garden? A seven-year research project by the University of Exeter and the Royal Horticultural Society compared the health of gardeners and non-gardeners and found that the green thumbs were significantly healthier, fitter and more positive. The difference was akin to comparing the health outcomes of people living in the wealthiest and poorest parts of Britain. Taking charge of something productive can help to restore confidence after physical injury or trauma. Simple gardening tasks such as watering, weeding, propagating and potting up vegetable seedlings can also empower people who are coming to terms with new disabilities. When my grandmother Patricia was recovering from a skin-graft operation in her mid-90s, we pushed her around Hamilton Gardens in a wheelchair. She returned to her hospital bed with her pockets filled with filched begonia cuttings – not a bad effort given her limited reach. As low-cost interventions, nature therapy or so-called green prescriptions are also useful tools in rehabilitation programmes and in community-based mental health initiatives. Near the Ardmore Airport in Auckland, the Hamlin Road Organic Farm run by Pathways supports people with mental illness or addictions, teaching new skills and providing paid work experience growing food in its shadehouses, citrus orchard and garden beds. The farm’s award-winning produce is sold online and at local farmers’ markets; I swear you can taste the compassion in its salad mixes, beetroot and spinach.SALLY TAGG/NZ GARDENER/StuffFeeding ourselves, and loved ones, from our own gardens, is a many splendoured joy. In 1860, Florence Nightingale described fresh air as “the very first canon of nursing”, and we are definitely drawn to gardens for respite and recovery. One of my sister’s teaching colleagues, Kelly Harlick, retreated to her garden during chemotherapy for cancer. “I spent many a day plucking unwanted weeds from the soil while the favourable flora were divided and regrown. I knew that I could bare my bald head to the plants without worrying about the bushes blushing or the greenery being grossed out,” she says. When my local doctor’s surgery recently moved into a brand new building, the contemporary fitout included a green wall of artificial houseplants, though I suspect their interior design budget would have been better spent on a large photograph of actual plants. That’s because simply looking at plants has a curative effect. In 1990, American psychologist Judith Heerwagen investigated whether hanging a large nature mural in the waiting room of a clinic treating anxious dental patients could help to ease their fears. Patients reported feeling less stressed and had lower heart rates than those who visited the clinic when the wall was blank. This hypothesis was also confirmed by a study at Uppsala University Hospital in Sweden of heart surgery patients, which found they could be more quickly weaned off the strongest narcotic pain medications when recovering in rooms decorated with pictures of trees, water and forests. (Abstract art, on the other hand, made them anxious.) For more than 40 years, American architecture professor Roger Ulrich investigated the healing role nature can play in hospitals. His pioneering 1984 study proved its pragmatic title, that the “View through a window may influence recovery from surgery”. His study of a group of patients recovering from gallbladder surgery in a Pennsylvania hospital found that those admitted to rooms with views of trees, as opposed to a plain brick wall, needed fewer painkillers, were in better spirits (according to the nursing notes) and were discharged, on average, a day earlier. They also reported fewer post-surgical complications. It’s interesting to note that, as a teenager, Ulrich suffered from kidney disease. He remembered “unpleasant experiences in gloomy, sometimes brutal, healthcare buildings”, but also, “long periods at home in bed feeling quite bad, looking out the window at a big pine tree. I think seeing that tree helped my emotional state.” Trees – in parks, streets and gardens – matter to us. They always have. As children, we challenge each other to climb high into their branches or hide inside their hollowed crowns. We fantasise about elves and fairies in magical trees and agree with Joyce Kilmer that we, too, are likely to never see a poem as lovely as a tree. As environmentally minded adults, we might gallantly stand in front of diggers or link arms around tree trunks to protect the trees we love from council chainsaws, yet as homeowners we’re becoming increasingly timid in our tree choices, seeing big ones as potential problems rather than alimentative allies. In urban environments, especially, we need trees. Not only do they reduce pollution, sequester carbon and moderate air temperatures, they make us kinder, calmer, happier and healthier. In Canada, researchers used satellite imagery to measure the density of greenery in Toronto neighbourhoods, then compared the level of tree cover with official mental health data and 31,000 residents’ answers to health questionnaires.SUPPLIEDWeeding, composting, hoeing, sowing and transplanting an entire summer vegetable garden in a weekend. Not only did the results show a significant relationship between the number of trees in a neighbourhood and how well its residents felt, the researchers could actually put a dollar value on the benefit of those trees. They found that 10 more trees per city block had the same boost to local residents’ health as a $10,000 annual pay rise or being seven years younger! Who doesn’t feel better after a walk in the bush? In Japan, this habit is known as forest-air bathing, or shinrin-yoku. A 2007 study at Kyoto University found that a 15-minute walk through a forest (compared to a control-group stroll through an urban area) reduced participants’ stress and hostility, alleviated depression and anxiety, relieved boredom and increased feelings of wellbeing and liveliness. Not only did the forest-walkers’ moods improve, the more stressed or anxious they were beforehand, the more pronounced the improvement. Another study, by Chiba University researchers, found that a 15-minute forest walk reduced the levels of stress hormones) in saliva swabs by an average of 15.8 per cent. Simply standing still, surrounded by trees, reduced cortisol concentration by 13.4 per cent. Though it might seem trite to say that nature is a great healer, it’s nonetheless true.FOGGYDALE FARM/StuffLynda Hallinan's new book, The Joy of Gardening, $45.
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