Why Garden?

By Dr Ross Cameron

Born with green fingers? But why are some people so drawn to gardening?

Why garden? A simple question, with a very simple answer in that gardening is surely the answer to Life, the Universe and Everything! OK a very personal answer and I might be a tad biased – although I am not alone in this school of thought. The cultural historian Thomas Berry claimed:

“Gardening is an active participation in the deepest mysteries of the universe.”

All very highfalutin and grand no doubt, but it does beg the question why do so many people garden? It is indeed, an interesting question. Almost 50% of the UK population will regularly leave their back door, don wellies and batter some piece of soil to death. Moreover, some will call this act; therapy.

Others will brag in the pub (or perhaps now over Zoom) about the size and flavour of their home grown carrots. Whilst other dedicated ‘disciples’ mow and trim the lawn religiously every Sunday.

People will break their backs pricking out seedlings into old yoghurt pots, by the thousand at a time, whilst others fervently partake in the £7bn annual ‘donation’ to garden centres, just for a little bit of floral “manna”. The Dutch thought nothing of spending 500 guilders (about £25,000 in today’s money) for a single tulip bulb back in the 17th century.

Seeing plants and flowers grow was cited as a popular reason for gardening

The attractions of gardening

So what is it about gardening that proves so addictive? We have just published some research in conjunction with the RHS that explores this question (Chalmin-Pui et al., 2021a). We asked those folk who defined themselves as ‘keen’ or ‘interested’ gardeners what motivated them to garden, and why they gardened so frequently.

The rationale for this research was the recent interest in gardening (e.g. Chalmin-Pui et al., 2021b) and more widely, engagement with nature (Cameron et al., 2020; Robinson et al., 2020) as health promoting activities. We were keen to explore the extent to which the reputed health benefits acted as a motivating factor.

We distributed a questionnaire on-line and 5766 UK gardeners responded. We also managed to coerce a small number of non-gardeners (249) [poor souls!!!] to fill in the questionnaire and act as a control group.

From kerb appeal to pleasure and enjoyment; over 5000 gardeners shared their reasons for gardening

Perhaps not too surprisingly, the data showed that most people gardened simply for pleasure and enjoyment, with similar responses, i.e. ‘love of the activity’ and ‘seeing plants and/or flowers grow’ also being quoted commonly.

Other responses indicated that ‘sensory reasons’ and ‘expression and self-identity’ were important aspects and it is evident that gardens are seen as places for spiritual ‘uplift’. They can also be very personal places, where people feel they can express their artistic flair through planting and other design opportunities.

At the other end of the spectrum and at a more practical level, gardening was also seen as a necessary task – in that they are an asset that require routine maintenance. Other common motivations related to: opportunities to grow one’s own food, allow us to be close to nature or simply provide the chance to spend time outdoors.

Gardens can be designed to draw in wildlife and allow us to be close to nature

Gardening for eternal life?!

OK I really am exaggerating now, but what were the links between gardening and health? People acknowledged that gardening delivered health benefits, although this was not necessarily a strong driver to get involved.

‘Health benefits’ was frequently cited in the questionnaire (as were the related categories of ‘for well-being’ and ‘for calm and relaxation’). When analysing the data further we found important links between perceived health levels and how often people actually gardened.

More frequent gardening was associated with statistically significant improvements in well-being, greater physical activity and lower levels of perceived stress. For example, for someone who gardened daily compared to an individual who did not garden at all, well-being scores increased by 5.3%, stress scores were 4.2% lower and gardeners were more physically active by 1.4 days a week (i.e. a whole 20% more active).

The data showed that for each additional 10% of vegetation cover, the odds of being more happy with one’s front garden increased by 26%.

Health issues such as back pain and arthritis could be a barrier to gardening, but many respondents with health problems stated gardening was a tonic. Of this particular sub-group (2436 people) gardening was considered good for: relaxation (20%), stress relief (16%), space for reflection (14%), help with episodes of depression (13%), physical exercise (13%), a sense of well-being (13%) and boosting energy levels (12%).

One of the interesting aspects of the research was it was implemented and completed before the Covid-19 related lockdown of Spring 2020. Gardening became even more popular during this period and it would be interesting to note if health played a bigger role in the motivations to garden at this time. Perhaps that needs to go on the shortlist for further research?

Increasing the proportion of vegetation in front gardens resulted in higher levels of satisfaction

Satisfaction with the garden

We were keen to see if gardeners by and large were happy / satisfied with their gardens, or could these places be a source of frustration or disappointment?

Participants were asked questions about their attitudes to their garden and what aspects improved their satisfaction with it. The amount of actual plant cover seemed important. For example, the proportion of vegetation present had an effect on satisfaction with the front-garden.

The data showed that for each additional 10% of vegetation cover, the odds of being more happy with one’s front garden increased by 26%. The reasons behind this are not fully explained and requires further investigation, and might simply relate to viewing less boring concrete and tarmac! Related to this, we are now exploring in a forthcoming paper what garden features and indeed what sorts of plants provide the most positive emotions for gardeners.

So to conclude and answer our original question – gardens are places of joy and creativity (for half the population at least!), but the simplicity and importance of this point should not be overlooked. These factors themselves are the fundamentals that underpin a quality life and in their own way, go far in helping keep the doctor away!

Perhaps gardens should be a right for all, and not just a luxury for some!

Read more: Why garden? – Attitudes and the perceived health benefits of home gardening

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