COVID-19 has shown that pandemics can seriously affect people’s physical and mental health. Stress, anxiety and depression have increased around the world, with the greatest effects for those living under the strictest lockdowns. Many people’s physical activity levels also fell during lockdown. Gardens, though, can help us push back against these negative effects.
Before the pandemic, having a garden was associated with better health and wellbeing, and this pattern has continued during COVID-19. In our own research on garden use during the UK’s first lockdown – published as a working paper this summer – we found that more frequent garden visits were associated with better wellbeing. Other work has also found that gardens have helped reduce mental distress during the pandemic.
With that in mind, here are five ways of using your garden that research suggests can improve your mental health. If you have access to an outdoor space and have been finding things difficult, you could try these out to boost your mood.
And if you’re feeling good now, you could use this chance to get ahead. Just as world leaders are being urged to prepare for the next pandemic, you can prepare your garden and develop habits now to better support your wellbeing in the future should there be another lockdown.
1. Do something (anything!)
People who garden every day are more physically active – and even those with a balcony, yard or patio are more likely to be active than those with no garden. Being more active is associated with better physical and mental health, including reduced risks of cancer, heart disease and depression.
You don’t have to be a gardener to get active in your garden (although we think you should give it a go). Gardens are great places to be creative and provide lots of opportunities to get moving. Play hide and seek, do yoga on the lawn, build a bug hotel for insects to live in – anything you like!
And remember, if there’s another lockdown, being physically active in your garden can make up for lost opportunities to be active in other parts of your life.
2. Do nothing
Gardens help restore the ability to concentrate on demanding tasks, providing the perfect space for a break when working from home in a pandemic. Natural things – such as trees, plants and water – are particularly easy on the eye and demand little mental effort to look at. Simply sitting in a garden is therefore relaxing and beneficial to mental wellbeing.
To get your garden ready for break time, create a space in which to unwind. Surround yourself with soothing things, such as flowers.
Garden seating also seems to be key. People in our research told us they enjoyed relaxing in hammocks, chairs and benches. So, make time to sit and watch the clouds, or relax with a book and a cup of tea. And don’t feel guilty about it – taking a break is important for avoiding psychological fatigue.
3. Be alone
Gardens are places to escape the anxieties and demands of the world around us. They are particularly restorative because they are places where we can get away from our day-to-day life. In our research, some people talked about needing space from other household members and got this by hiding in the garden shed. Others hid away in the bathroom or bedroom.
Should there be another lockdown, remember that the garden is a good space to get away from work and other people. Perhaps create a hidden nook in your garden that you can hide out in for a few minutes. You’ll most likely return to work and life feeling refreshed and more productive.
4. Be social
Research also highlights the value of spending time with others outdoors. There are lots of ways to use your garden for socialising and building relationships. You could play a game outside, have a barbeque, chat to a neighbour over the fence, or invite a friend to drink hot chocolate in the snow (the Norwegians can teach us much about enjoying the outdoors during winter).
5. Go natural
Nature offers numerous benefits to mental and physical health. Being in the presence of greater biodiversity is linked to feeling of being restored, as is listening to birdsong and the sounds of water. Having more natural elements in gardens – such as scented flowers, insects and natural materials like stone – increases wellbeing.
Bringing nature into whatever garden space you have is therefore a good idea. Flowers are particularly desirable, with the added benefit that they support pollinators. You could also create a pond or get a birdfeeder.
Of course, not everyone has a garden. But even if you don’t have outdoor space of your own, you can still follow some of these tips. Indoor plants can be used to create a more “natural” environment and have been shown to improve mood.
Green exercise – such as cycling, walking or running in woodland or countryside – can boost mood and self-esteem. Walking alone in a park has also been shown to be revitalising.
If you want to spend more social time outdoors, you could help at an allotment or community garden, as these are often highly social pursuits that involve working together outside. And if you want to do nothing at all, you could find a small local park to just sit and relax in.
Emma White and Sarah Golding are currently researching the role that nature has played for people during the pandemic. This project is funded by the UK's Economic and Social Research Council.