Sunday 20th January 2019
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Words: Steffie Shields
Photography: Steffie Shields
Featured in the September 2018 issue

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Steffie Shields celebrates the value of gardens to our wellbeing.

“Let us be grateful to the people who make us happy; they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom,” an adage, penned by French thinker Marcel Proust, is worth sharing. Thinking back, I give thanks for the delights of gardening handed down by my feisty Canadian grandmother. ‘Ganna’ always saw the funny side of life, but after the odd blazing row with my grandfather, she used to calm her nerves, leaning on the sill of the dining room window and contemplating colour combinations in their back garden. She adored envisaging next year’s wave of spring bulbs, planning colour schemes and making notes on the flyleaf of her horticultural books. I have come to understand how gardening gave her equilibrium and purpose as her children grew and flew the nest.

My daughter Gady, now living in California, has begun growing flowers from seed which cope with heat. ”Grow a zinnia,” she says, “it will have you checking it every day!” So lovely that she, in turn, is beginning to appreciate gardening. She always manages to make me laugh. If “laughter is the best medicine”, growing a few flowers and herbs in a couple of containers in the backyard or on a balcony, is a step on the healthy road to balanced wellbeing.

Nurturing plants encourages us to think outside ourselves, forget whatever our anxieties may be for a while. Modern scientists have proved the cognitive power of place and that just looking at the landscape, let alone connecting with the soil, alters the alchemy of the brain. Each garden tidy-up makes for satisfied enjoyment. Weeding aids problem-solving and can be an antidote to grieving. New planting brings improved prospects and positivity, looking forward to next season’s budding ‘show’.

Monty Don, the popular TV gardening guru, has long extolled gardening pleasures to counteract depression. Yet recently he provoked debate by suggesting that garden visiting is harmful for our horticultural confidence, when seeing such picture-perfect gardens open for charity.

He said: “Visiting gardens is bad for you. Not only does it encourage too much eating of cake but sets up all kinds of false notions that are ruinous to your garden back home.”

Sorry Monty, I must disagree with this glass half-empty attitude, surely a blow to all those who strive to share their creativity for the good of others. Rather than garden envy, I get a buzz from seeing other gardeners’ accomplishments. They inspire me with ideas for design and planting combinations, to improve the ‘look’ of my own plot. So, to paraphrase Proust, “Let us be grateful for refreshing and stimulating parks and gardens which make us happy; they allow our minds freedom to explore and blossom.”

On one of the hottest July days, Grimsthorpe Castle held a special Garden Celebration, a fun family day out for all ages with games and musical entertainment in magnificent gardens with panoramic park vistas. Among a host of plant and food stalls, I enjoyed chatting to Willow Herb Nursery owners and garden designers Steve Penney and Angela Sach. As a former nurse, Angela appreciates all health paybacks from growing fresh vegetables and herbs. She recommended mint and the attractive, mauve, white and green tricolour sage as her personal favourites. Steve showed me lemon-scented verbena, Aloysia citrodora, their biggest seller. Steep some leaves in boiling water for five minutes to enjoy a lemony cuppa. He sang the praises of scarlet Monarda, that glamourous edible eye-candy, also known bergamot or bee-balm, which can be similarly infused as refreshing tea.

Do not underestimate the power of scent. Even my husband noticed how just brushing past apple mint makes a difference. Take Melissa officinalis – the clue is in the common name: lemon balm. I love to pinch a leaf between two fingers. Its fragrance helps bring down blood pressure. So many beneficial essential oils are derived from herbs. Pluck them direct from garden pot to cooking pot for the best flavours. The tall umbels of tiny yellow flowers of fennel, Foeniculum vulgare, like the feathery leaves, have a mild licorice flavour, and work well in desserts. Its essence is widely used in mouth fresheners, toothpaste and antacids but also gives relief to anaemia and host of digestive disorders.

Not one for yoga, pilates or tai chi classes held mainly indoors, I would rather be out where all the senses are stimulated, not just calories burned, and muscles toned! My garden is my green gymnasium, with plenty of opportunities for healthy exercise without thinking about it! Remember the first rose or tree you planted? That feeling of hope that it would be around for years. Be careful, as back muscles notice wear and tear with age. Too many A&E departments are filled with people who have managed to injure themselves in the garden.

Which reminds me to applaud recent efforts by volunteers in the comeback of hospital and hospice gardens, proving so therapeutic to patients. We all love ‘good to be alive feelings’ being outside on a fine day. Many in the cities flock to the green public parks to soak up sunshine for relaxation and respite from stuffy offices.

Have you heard of Silent Space, a garden project begun in 2016 that is quietly doing so much good? Open gardens around the country are offering visitors areas where you can switch off your devices and simply enjoy being silent. Peckover House (National Trust) has signed up to the idea, designating the ‘Wilderness Walk’ as a Silent Space for a few hours, 11am-1pm, every Tuesday. See www.silentspace.org.uk.

‘Finding the time and a place in which to be silent is important for us all.’ I hope more open gardens in Lincolnshire will get involved. ‘Wellness’, the quality of being in good mental and physical health is surely everyone’s goal. After recent weeks of drought, no need to emphasise the need for water in our lives! A small pond, rill, or feature fountain sustains garden owners as much as wildlife. Water adds reflection, cool attraction and pleasing sounds. Note the connection: how we use the same word ‘well’ about human feelings and emotions as we do for a natural source of water or spring.

Forget surfing your iPhone for a while unless to take photographs of your gardening successes! Aim to plant courgettes next year or on-trend Chinese cabbages. This month the changing colour of the heart-shaped leaves of the Japanese Katsura tree, which emit a cinnamon scent, are making me particularly happy. Boughs of bright red apples, equally heart-warming, remind me how to keep that doctor away. Perhaps the berried rowan tree, a sign of welcome by the gate should also signify ‘wishing wellness’. I sincerely hope that just stopping to read this has made readers feel positively better.

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