ALL, OR at least most, of us know it: being in a garden, or a natural green space, makes us feel better. I go regularly to my favourite green spaces, habitually seeking something that makes me feel “more me”.
Even if I can’t get outside, the memory of a warm summer’s day in my childhood garden, the bees buzzing drunkenly by while the breeze shifted the leaves in the copper beech, is sometimes enough to lift my mood and heal my soul.
But is there anything behind this common human experience? Do gardens really heal?
First, an emotional experience in a garden should not be dismissed lightly. The chemist and philosopher of science Michael Polanyi writes that humans are not merely outside observers of the universe, but part of it. If we wish to understand the physical world, there is true knowledge to be found in our experiences of being here.
Another philosopher, Fiona Ellis, has written recently that it is indeed in the “ambiguities of human experience” that knowledge-seeking should begin.
The modern medical health-care system can trace its roots back to the monastic communities of the Middle Ages, many of which built gardens to treat the ill. For the monks, enclosed gardens were as important for the healing of the patients as the properties of the plants they grew there.
Modern hospital and hospice architecture today often uses natural spaces and gardens that follow medieval designs.
Over the past 40 years, there has been a growing body of evidence regarding the healing effects of nature at a psychological and physiological level. The idea of a “therapeutic landscape” was first coined by medical geographers, who recognised places that had a reputation for facilitating healing in body, mind, or spirit.
Studies have shown that it is at the neurological level that gardens can promote healing. For example, when people are stressed and distracted as a result of some aspect of modern life, gardens bring about positive changes by shifting their mind into a more meditative mode of thinking.
Research into recovery times has shown that looking out of a window at a natural scene helped patients to recuperate more quickly than an artificial environment.
And if people can actually get their hands dirty, the healing benefits increase: recent work has linked gardening and an improvement in health — particularly in patients with dementia or displaying symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Research linking healing and gardens is focused not just on the psychological benefits. A long-term study in Japan of the physical effects of “forest bathing”, i.e. spending time near trees, found that this practice had a measurable impact on the immune system, linked to the inhalation of chemicals released naturally by the trees.
The evidence supporting the psychological and physiological impact of gardens and gardening is growing. Not only is this a satisfying metaphor: it gives a firm foundation for the Church Times Green Health Awards.
Churches lie at the heart of communities around the country. Their churchyards and green spaces have the potential to become a myriad of garden oases, able to make a tangible difference to the health of the congregations and the communities that they seek to serve.
The Revd Dr Gillian Straine is director of the Guild of Health and St Raphael.