Dig deep: Mind and body benefits of working in your garden

While people once wanted everything instantly, horticulturalist Gary Graham tells Margaret Jennings that gardening is becoming cool again Dig deep to connect with the natural world.

If you’re overwhelmed by life or have troubles on your mind, there is no better stress-buster than connecting with nature, according to the man behind the annual Bloom festival, Gary Graham.

Dig deep: Mind and body benefits of working in your garden

“If you’ve got plants, you’ve got life; you’ve that connection back to something much bigger than you are, and your worries. That’s why being in a green space, surrounded by plants, surrounded by nature, is much more powerful than sitting in a room in the lotus position [meditating] — surrounded by concrete and plaster — because then all you’ve got is your thoughts, whereas you can use nature as an intervention,” says the 56-year-old horticulturalist.

That intervention involves consciously allowing ourselves to be drawn into the multi-sensory aspect of the outdoors — a meditation of sorts: “I think if you can listen to nature — the wind in the leaves, a water feature, hear birds, if you can raise your head and feel the sun on your face, or feel the breeze, if it’s not too cold — I think all those things are what connect you to nature, connect you to the earth. That would be my approach,” he says.

Of course remembering to do that every day and when you are most stressed, is the challenge

- he adds.

Keeping stress at bay helps us age more healthily and the physical activity of gardening — even it means just walking around watering the plants, is another bonus on that front.

Nature also brings us back to earth, so to speak, about our own ageing process, with the changing seasons. Gary agrees: “It reminds us of the cycle of life — you can’t get away from it. It draws you in; it definitely makes you aware of passing time.

“For many people it’s now a way to link back to something greater than yourself, if you don’t have religion in your life — and speaking for me personally, nature would be my god in some ways. I’m very aware of the impact it has on me and on others,” says the father of three adult children.

Brought up a city boy in London until the age of 10, it was when his parents returned in 1972 to be with his grandfather, after his grandmother had died, in Inchicore, Dublin, that he was exposed to the miracle of growing things.

His grandfather had a “huge corporation back garden” and land rented along the canal, to cater for his “hobby that got out of hand” which resulted in him supplying all the neighbours with whatever he had in season, wrapped in wet newspaper.

“It was a quiet experience. It was ‘Oh yea… I’m going out to help my granddad’; it wasn’t that we were having fun and chatting. He was a quiet man and a fantastic grower and he’d spend a lot of time getting his beds and drills ready and everything was perfectly aligned — this sense of order.”

As that child though, he learnt how to “get into a flow” — that sense of focussed immersion in an activity. Decades later, being the man who created and manages the Bloom Garden Festival, now in its 13th year, he recognises that the intergenerational aspect of gardening, with grandparents passing on their knowledge of growing, is invaluable to the younger generation: “I think if a child has any experience of growing through grandparents, it takes the fear out; that anybody can grow food.”

“There’s almost a missing generation — those who are the current 40 and 50-year-olds who were so busy with other stuff that they didn’t do much gardening; there was a time when it wasn’t cool, when everything had to be instant,” he says. “That’s definitely changing; we see it in our research in Bord Bia as well, that the biggest change happening in gardening, is people wanting to grow their own food.”

It’s about creating what is now called “food empathy”; about the fun of growing — even if you only get a couple of meals out of the produce. It’s the realisation that food “is not just fodder, consumed quickly,” he says.

The attendance at Bloom has tripled to 120,000 since it started and 25,000 of those are children. “I knew we had lots of talented passionate people in this country when I started out. We have a great team and 78% of our visitors come every year — they’re very loyal,” he says.

Unlike the British Chelsea show, which is a very grown-up serious affair, we are more casual, more about food and it’s more of a celebration. People get to meet the designers, the chefs — their heroes — it’s much more fun

His grandfather would no doubt be proud of Gary’s legacy.

    Gary helped launch this year’s GroMór campaign which is encouraging everyone to visit their local garden centre or nursery, to buy some Irish plants and get growing. GroMór is an initiative of Bord Bia in association with Retail Excellence Ireland, promoting 62 local garden centres and nurseries around the country.

    For more info and tips visit www.gromor.ie

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