Scientific study shows you can garden your way to health

The act of gardening is one of the key correlates with wellbeing, a survey finds.

I imagine health scientists all want the importance of their work to be recognised. However, I doubt they wish for a strong graphic demonstration of their work’s relevance. Nevertheless with staggeringly fortunate (?) timing, Siân de Bell and colleagues working across the European Centre for Environment and Human Health in Exeter, the Royal Horticultural Society, and Natural England have published a study showing the importance of spending time in a garden for health and wellbeing.

The study is the result of analysis of the the Monitor of Engagement with the Natural Environment survey. This survey is run by Natural England, a public body in the UK, and asks people about their contact with the natural world as well as a range of sociodemographic questions. “we were lucky to have access to such rich data,” lead author, Siân de Bell said. “The survey is the largest of its kind in the world. Having a large number of respondents and being able to consider a range of confounding factors gives us greater statistical power and confidence in our results.”

An enthusiastic and colourful gardener.
Image: Canva.

The research follows a lot of recent study of the effect of Urban Natural Environments on public health. The Urban Natural Environment is the parts of the urban environment that aren’t built up, typically thought of a parks and green spaces, though some people would make it a broader definition. But the emphasis has tended to be on public space.

“Research into the health benefits of green space is still a relatively new field so studies have tended to be at a broader scale, concentrating on the quantity of neighbourhood green space rather than its type. Now that we have evidence of a relationship between green space and health, studies are starting to look at different types of space,” said de Bell. “They have tended to concentrate on those which are public and I think there a number of reasons for this, such as the greater availability of data. I think also gardens have been overlooked perhaps because it is seen as obvious that they are ‘good’.”

The team came to a number of conclusions from the survey:

  • Compared to no garden access, access to a private garden was associated with better evaluative wellbeing
  • People with access to a private space such as a balcony, yard or patio were more likely to meet physical activity guidelines.
  • People who used a garden to relax and gardened in it, reported better health and wellbeing and more physical activity.
  • The gardeners also reported more nature visits than non-gardeners.

If the lockdown has turned you cynical, you might think that garden ownership could be a crude proxy for wealth, with richer people able to afford bigger gardens to garden in. This is where the survey size matters. The team had almost eight thousand responses to work through. This allowed the authors to sift through the data.

“Garden ownership is associated with wealth to an extent but the majority of people in the UK do have access to a garden (87%). When we looked at the data, we could see that whilst more wealthy people had a private garden (89% in the highest income group), most people in the lowest income group still had a private garden (70%),” de Bell said.

“We were lucky that the data we had was very rich, the survey we used collects a range of socio-demographic information from the respondents. This meant that we could control for socio-economic factors associated with both garden ownership and health and wellbeing – which might therefore have confounded any association between gardens and health – in the statistical analysis.”

“We considered both individual factors such as income group, employment status, and home ownership, as well as area-level factors such as the deprivation score of the person’s neighbourhood.”

Part of the reason for seeing beyond wealth, is that the article comments on how gardens improve wellbeing.

“The results also indicate that using gardens may play a major role in deriving benefits from them. Both of the activities we focused on, gardening and sitting and relaxing in the garden, were associated with health and wellbeing. In models of eudaimonic wellbeing and visiting nature once a week, the addition of garden activities led to the type of garden access no longer being significant, indicating that the benefits of having garden access are explained by actual garden use Domestic or everyday gardening has been linked with positive physical and mental health outcomes in previous small-scale studies (Soga et al., 2017); our study provides evidence for this association at a larger scale and in a representative sample. Respondents who relaxed and gardened or who only gardened were more likely to meet physical activity guidelines, whereas those who only relaxed were not.”

If it’s the actual doing gardening that contributes to wellbeing, then that raises some questions. We can’t give people gardens overnight, but could we relax restrictions on guerilla gardening? Could people adopt local green verges on their road? It would neutralise some of the antisocial element of a positive activity. However, de Bell sees some problems with this approach.

“On one hand, yes, it would be good for people to have this option as it could have a positive wellbeing effect. However, if this leads to an expectation that people should be caring for these spaces, rather than there being management by local authorities, then this could have a negative effect on wellbeing, if care became a burden or there was a decrease in environmental quality through neglect of these spaces.”

“There was also some indication from our findings that the privacy of gardens and outdoor spaces contributed to the benefits they provided and I think an important implication of our results was that public green space is not a substitute for private green space.”

There were also some surprises in the results, with one result sticking out for de Bell. “I think the association between spending time in the garden and visiting other natural environments was the one that was most surprising to me. Whilst it does make sense from the perspective that these people may be more connected with nature and therefore more likely to use their garden and more motivated to visit other natural spaces, I expected that people who could not access nature at home would visit other natural spaces more frequently.”

COVID-19 may have thrust a spotlight onto the study, the research into gardens and wellbeing is part of a wider long-term research programme, SWEEP, the South West Partnership for Environmental and Economic Prosperity.

“Our SWEEP project is about translating research to support investment in nature for health; it is responsive to stakeholder needs and we are currently discussing evidence needs regarding planning for lockdown events in the future and the provision of natural spaces for vulnerable people so we hope this study can contribute to that. There are a number of topics we would like to investigate in the future, such as the impact of different garden characteristics on health, as well as the contribution gardens have made to supporting health and wellbeing during lockdown,” said de Bell.

Alun Salt

Alun (he/him) is the Producer for Botany One. It's his job to keep the server running. He's not a botanist, but started running into them on a regular basis while working on writing modules for an Interdisciplinary Science course and, later, helping teach mathematics to Biologists. His degrees are in archaeology and ancient history.

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