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The healing power of gardening

As gardeners, we know that the time we spend with our hands in the soil, tending to our plants, can lift our spirits and make time virtually disappear. In our busy lives, the mental health benefits of gardening can hardly be overstated.

Gardening and spending time in nature have well-documented physical, mental and emotional health benefits. Research suggests that gardening can have a positive impact on depression and anxiety, and there are horticultural therapy programs for therapists who want to harness the positive effect of connections between people and plants.

So, how do gardens and gardening have such positive benefits?

Toronto-based psychiatrist Dr. Nate Charach is particularly well-qualified to answer this question. Visit Nate’s backyard healing garden with us, and learn more about the connection to the earth he nurtures in the video below.

Created a food forest

When Nate moved into his Toronto home, he sought to “heal what was hurting” in his new property. To start this healing process, he created a food forest on the sloped land of his Toronto backyard.

But, just what is a food forest?

Food forests are only recently coming back into gardening fashion (as it were), but food forests, also known as food gardens, are actually an ancient cultivation practice.

Historically, food forests were created by integrating food plants into an existing forest. In our modern, largely urbanized world, the benefit of a forest environment is created by mimicking patterns found in nature.

Plants are cultivated in layers to simulate the different levels of a forest, from the topmost layer (the canopy or overstory) all the way down to the mycelial layer (subterranean mushroom, below the forest floor).

In Nate’s garden, we found, each layer created a holistic connection between the gardener and nature.

Following nature's example

Within a food forest, each layer is suited to growing a particular food (from tree nuts to herbs to mushrooms, for example), and each is integrated with perennial native plants (as a rule).

If you can imagine a forest in your mind’s eye, picture the varying levels of trees, shrubs, vines and understory elements.

In a food forest, the taller trees which comprise the canopy are the larger fruit and nut trees. The forest garden’s shorter trees and shrubs bear different fruit (apples, for example). Vines may bear grapes and smaller shrubs may bear fruits like elderberry or currant.

Closer to the ground you would find herbs like rosemary and mint. And as groundcover, wild strawberries or sorrel may be found.

Food for people and pollinators

Layers of cultivation climb the hill of Nate’s backyard garden in a glorious profusion of growth.

Plants were carefully chosen to support the soil by fixing nitrogen to it. Groundcover further supports the soil by protecting it from the sun, keeping it from drying out in summer’s hot months. Flowering plants support pollinators, and throughout, thickets provide habitat for wildlife.

It’s easy to understand how Nate came to call his garden a “healing garden”. Both the land and the gardener, it seems, are being healed by the food forest’s layers of earthly connection.

Therapeutic benefits of gardening

When you garden, “you’re reconnecting with the earth,” Nate says. Gardening, and being in nature, can ease the distress that many of us feel day-to-day.

“[People] can feel that things are not right, but they don’t have a sense of what to do about that… a lot of research from the last five to ten years shows the significant benefits of time spent in nature and green spaces. People who are located closer to green spaces have better mental health. We know that very clearly.”

Just seeing plants can make a difference

Not all of us have a backyard in which to create a garden. Take heart, though. Studies have found that simply having plants in view can reduce stress, fear, anger and sadness, and can also reduce blood pressure, pulse rate and muscle tension. And research has shown that even taking a walk in a natural environment can have a positive effect on anxiety and depression.

Stay tuned

Seeing Nate in his healing garden is a perfect demonstration of the therapeutic benefits of gardening, don’t you think? We thought so, too, so we invited Nate to speak with us on our podcast, which we’ll be releasing soon. If you haven’t already done so, consider signing up for our newsletter, and we’ll let you know when the episode hits YouTube and Spotify.

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