Hannah Stephenson seeks expert advice on how we can dig into the benefits nature offers our wellbeing.
The director of science at the Royal Horticultural Society, Professor Alistair Griffiths, has done a lot of research into wellbeing and gardens.
Now he’s teamed up with award-winning garden designer Matt Keightley to help more of us dig into these benefits with a new book, RHS Your Wellbeing Garden, in which the pair offer a range of ideas for using greenery and gardens to distract from the stresses of life, whether it be butterflies, birdsong, or sensory and scented plants.
“I hope this book will say, ‘Listen people, you are part of nature’,” Griffiths explains.
“We’ve done lots of work into how we look after birds and bees, but we haven’t really looked at what a garden means for our own health.”
There’s lots of evidence that being in nature is good for us — so why not create spaces specifically for this purpose?
The idea is to create a peaceful corner, surrounded by plants.
A fan of checking in for a “body health check”, Griffiths suggests: “Breathe more deeply and think about the different parts of your body and working through them to check your health status, surrounded by nature.
“It’s about being in the present, backed by evidence which shows that if you spend a little bit of time just stopping and thinking about yourself and how you are feeling, it helps to be surrounded by the right elements of your natural habitat.”
Researchers in Edinburgh also found people living closer to green space had lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol, he adds.
“There’s a worry that we’ll get ‘Nature Deficit Disorder’, where the less nature we have within our habitat has a negative effect on our anxiety and stress,” says Griffiths.
Curious to “grow” some nature-inspired wellbeing or create a garden mindfulness corner of your own?
“Key elements of life, like shelter and water, are relevant to a mindfulness corner, which is trying to create a refuge but with an ability to view outside of that,” says Griffiths.
“Create an area of seating where you can sit alone, or with friends and family,” he suggests.
Try to make room for plants which attract butterflies, bees and wildlife to distract you from everyday life.
“Even on a balcony, if you can look at your wider view and see a wider part of nature, picture-frame those,” adds Griffiths.
“If there are trees in the city you can help to create a design to picture-frame that bit, like a window to nature.”
It’s good to have an element of water, where you have the ability to see and hear the water and look at its reflectiveness, he advises.
And if you only have a balcony, or no outdoor space at all? “Bring nature indoors,” says Griffiths.
“You can make a mindfulness corner in your house, bringing greenery into those spaces, which will be more critical in relation to the future.
"Interior green walls are developing, which are becoming quite easy to maintain."
“In my house, I have a couple of nice palms in self-watering containers and some ferns in a corner.
"They sit in my office along with asparagus ferns along my windowsill.
"The greenery connects to the wider landscape.”
“Scent is critical,” says Griffiths. “Choose things which are fragrant.
"There’s scientific evidence linking lavender to calm and sleep.
"The beauty of lavender is that it attracts bees and other distractions [too].”
“In the RHS Wellbeing Garden at Wisley, we’ve looked at the psychology of colour and how its hues have an impact on us emotionally, but what seems to have more of an impact is the intensity of that colour.
"The brighter the colours, the more impact they have on our emotions,” Griffiths explains.
“When you add water to the scene, it gives you the blues and the greens.
"They are commonly thought of as calming colours, linking nature, water and the sky, the things that give us life.” Wildlife is important
“Even if you live in a high-rise flats, have bird feeders. Bees also get up there and other wildlife will find it.
"Having things that attract wildlife is a key aspect,” says Griffiths.
Touch is another of the senses that can be tapped into.
“Include plants around touch, such as soft ornamental grasses, the sort of plants that you want to run your hand through when you walk past,” suggests Griffiths.
“Again, it’s about the connection with nature.”
Don’t over-complicate things Keep it relatively simple and opt for plants you’ll be able to care for.
Griffiths notes that aiming to grow plants for success can boost self-esteem.