It seems you can’t pick up a gardening magazine these days without reading about the measurable benefits that horticulture can have on both mental and physical health – from alleviating stress to reducing pain levels. However, as someone who spends most of his waking hours tending to plants, I wonder if there is also a flip side to this. Can some aspects of gardening – both indoors and out – also be a source of stress and, if so, is there a way we can tweak what we do to maximise gardening’s therapeutic benefits?
When it comes to houseplants, all you have to do to see what’s driving the Instagram explosion of interest is look at the hashtags. Things like #plantsmakepeoplehappy and #plantparenthood show that, far from an interior design trend, it’s the healthy, emotional desire to care for and nurture life that is often the driver of people’s interest. However, just beneath the surface you find hashtags like #planthoarder thrown into the mix.
As the owner of at least 500 houseplants, I will admit I sometimes feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume of these dependents. I have also had to pause, finger hovering over the “add to basket” icon, to really consider whether I need that rare new orchid variety or whether I am caught up in a potentially unhealthy endorphin rush. If you find this happening, there is no shame in simplifying your collection. Fewer plants that are better cared for will be a greater source of joy for you, and it’s definitely better for the plants, too. Your friends and family, if they are anything like mine, are likely to be delighted with a re-homed botanical gift, and if not there’s a burgeoning online market for mature plants that can give you some pocket money to invest in proper plant care.
For outdoor gardeners, the greatest source of stress, judging by the questions people send me, seems to be worries about neatness and order. This is particularly the case when it comes to structural aspects of planting that require continual care, like topiary, formal hedges and lawns. My opinion on these is similar to that of the late, great, Christopher Lloyd: “In gardens there is nothing so labour-intensive and yet so boring, and I think this is unforgiveable.” If you love your lawn and it brings you joy, that’s great. If, however, it’s a chore remember there is no rule that gardens have to have them. Likewise with hedges and topiary. All sorts of low-maintainence, free-flowering plants will fill that space, potentially giving you loads more pleasure and less stress. In fact, abandoning a slavish devotion to neatness in general not only reduces your work but can be more aesthetic, too. In our increasingly regimented, wipe-clean lives, a wild meadow of buttercups, dandelions and daisies can bring more joy than the sterility of perfectly clipped borders. The fact that a bit of wilderness also provides habitat for all sorts of animals – from hedgehogs to garden birds – further enhances the beauty, with unexpected movement, interest and birdsong.
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