Now the weather is warming up and the growing season is underway, it’s time to put some time into your allotment. Take stock of what’s there and plan out what you want to see happening. Next make it happen, then reap the benefits which will flow from doing that!
Just at the moment, when so much of our lives has been restricted, and will continue to be restricted, to be able to do something we have some control over is wonderful.
Gardening is great for physical and mental health and well-being
If you didn’t know already, evidence is mounting that gardening has many health benefits for young and old. So you need no excuses to get out there and do it, knowing that every aspect will have a positive knock-on effect.
Top of the list is that being outside will benefit your immune system because sunshine enables the body to absorb vitamin D, which helps the body to absorb calcium which in turn helps keep your bones strong and immune system healthy.
If you’re one of the 1 in 5 Britons who suffer from Vitamin D deficiency, that’s a very good reason to spend more time outside.
Another boost to immune systems comes from the beneficial bacteria found in soil, so get digging and planting rather than reaching for the Dettol!
Next is the exercise which you’ll get from digging, weeding, planting, watering, pruning etc. Doing these activities regularly will tone up your muscles, keep you mobile and decrease the risk of osteoporosis in later life.
Overweight and not one for sport or the gym? Think of gardening as part of your weight-loss plan: spending 3-4 hours on the allotment will burn as many calories as an hour at the gym (different activities use between 200 to 400 calories an hour). If The National Institute of Health recommends 30-45 minutes of gardening for three to five times per week, that’s perfect for people living close by their allotment, or if you live further afield, twice a week for a couple of hours should keep you reasonably fit.
Diet: Once you’ve produced your first harvests of fruit and vegetables and appreciate the delicious taste and variety of what you can produce, you’re likely to eat more healthily and reap the benefit of fresh food that you’ve chosen to grow. Better nutrition will work its magic immediately and for your later life, and at the same time, you’re contributing to a lower carbon footprint by growing your own food close to home.
Roll back the years. On average,everyone is living longer than in previous times and gardeners live longer than the average. But old age can be full of pain and problems such as dementia. One research study following a group of people in their 60s and 70s for 16 years found that those who gardened regularly had between a 36% – 47% lower risk of developing dementia compared to non-gardeners. Other studies show how physical activity improves cognitive function and memory – useful for people of any age, not just dementia sufferers.
Then there’s the increased risks of sudden death or disablement and your allotment can help you out here too: According to The British Medical Journal gardening can help reduce the risk of a heart attack or stroke, and for over 60s, gardening can help prolong life by up to as much as 30%.
In a study of places around the world where residents are famed for their longevity, it was found that an outdoor lifestyle with regular moderate physical activity is linked to longer life, and gardening is an easy way to accomplish both.
Mental health and wellbeing
Over the last year, mental health problems are said to have increased significantly and we’re all now more aware of the factors which can trip even stable people into states of anxiety, stress or depression. The good news for people with allotments is that their choice of leisure activity can make a big difference to their well-being.
For example, in a piece of research which studied reactions following stressful tasks, people who did outdoor gardening had lower stress levels and felt ‘fully restored’ to a good mood while people who did indoor reading found their mood ‘further deteriorated’. And why? Because, like other forms of exercise, gardening helps to release endorphins, the hormone that helps to make people feel satisfied and relaxed, and being outside in the sunlight also improves mood and counters the effects of Seasonal Affective Disorder, a type of depression that occurs during the winter months where sunlight is restricted.
If you regularly do gardening, it should help to lower the levels of a stress hormone (cortisol) in your brain, thereby also improving your ability to learn and remember.
Focusing on the task in hand. Most regular gardeners will tell you that concentrating on a gardening task, whether it’s digging, sowing, weeding, chopping or whatever, is just what’s needed to give your mind a break from everyday worries and stress. Like a form of meditation, it can lower blood pressure too as you just focus on the here and now, not the past or the future.
Add to this the fact that you are spending time in a green space, reconnecting with nature and its changing seasons, observing each stage of growth, maturation and decline, and you’ve got a recipe for feeling whole again and part of the natural cycle.
Dealing with strong emotions. For most of us at some time or another, we need safe outlets for rage and frustration when we can’t control the situations we’re in, and with gardening, there’s always something to do on the plot that fulfills this need. Sowing tiny seeds isn’t the thing, but heavy digging, cutting back brambles and pulling out long-rooted weeds are great ways to vent pent-up feelings, and when you’ve finished, you’ll have something to show for all that negative energy you’ve spent.
Taking control. In many aspects of life, we have little control, but an allotment is a place where you can take full charge of everything that happens – weather and soil permitting. This can be especially therapeutic when the rest of your life is going badly. And what a sense of satisfaction when your efforts are rewarded and family and friends can enjoy the fruits of your efforts.
Power and responsibility. Just as important as the feeling of power which having an allotment can give you, is the sense of responsibility it engenders – to look after this piece of land, and nurture the plants on it. It’s important for all of us, and especially for people suffering with mental health issues, giving them a sense of purpose and self-worth as well as providing activities to keep them occupied rather than focusing on their problems.
Social or anti-social? For some people, an additional plus for allotment gardening is the fact that it can be a non-social setting – it’s just you, the plants and soil, and communicating with plants is not as threatening and stressful as having to cope with people! Particularly for people whose jobs or home situations are emotionally draining or full of conflict, their allotment can provide a life-line, an oasis of calm.
For others with the opposite problem of little or no connection with other people, the allotment site is the place where they can feel part of a community of people with a common interest. The sharing of experience, knowledge and skills as well as friendly chat over a cup of tea is what they look forward to most of all.
For a lot of allotment gardeners, we like a balance of working on our own plots and sometimes mixing with others, and that keeps us balanced too.
Indulge your senses. Finally, there’s something for everyone – young, old and every type of background – when you get involved in allotment gardening. It’s not just young children who benefit from the varied experience, but people of any age can heighten all their senses while they are there. The smells, shapes, colours and textures of plants and insects, the feel of the soil or the breeze, the sounds of the birds or the wind in the trees, the taste of a just-picked fruit, just soak it all in and feel at one with the world.
All-in-all, it’s a no-brainer. Gardening on your allotment is your investment in yourself and your future. So what are you waiting for?