Somewhere in mid-February, I got a message from a friend of mine who is a great gardener. This friend opens her beautiful garden, which includes a national collection, to the public and whatever hour of day you pop round, is always to be found among her plants, tending them, and planning the season’s displays. I hadn’t seen her since late in the autumn so it was lovely to hear from her, but her news was a little upsetting – the pain from her arthritis was now a lot worse and she needed surgery. I did my best to offer sympathetic and practical suggestions of course but as so often in situations like that, I felt inadequate.
Later that day, another message: this dedicated plantswoman was about to reach a special birthday and received an unusual snowdrop variety as a present from a friend, as has become their tradition. Despite feeling lousy, the urge to plant the new arrival overcame the instinct to stay indoors. Out she went to plant her special snowdrop in a place that would show it off to best effect. The best line of that message: my friend said that she forgot all about the pain until she came back in from her planting mission. The secret remedy was, it seems, to carry on gardening wherever possible.
There are some interesting studies, from Japan and Korea principally, that explore this pain-relieving effect of gardening. The researchers expose their subjects to mild pain by having them hold their hands in bowls of icy water (and possibly other treatments that create ethically permissible temporary pain). Then they record the subjects’ physiological reactions and their mental experience of pain.
The crucial variable in the experiment is the presence or absence of plants. People who are undergoing the same pain-inducing conditions but with a plant or gardening scene nearby seem to feel lower levels of pain. Other studies have found comparable effects of plants and gardens in reducing feelings of anger, stress, fear, and anxiety.
No one really knows how this works, what the mechanisms are that make us feel better when we’re in a green space or in a room with plants versus one without. But while researchers gather data to test various theories, many people noticed gardening’s feel-good effect for the first time during the lockdowns of 2020-21 and decided they wanted more of it.
Three to five million people in the UK got into gardening in 2020, with 90,000 of these new gardeners getting their hands dirty in Scotland. For these newbies, growing for the first time through all four seasons means there is so much to look forward to. Taking full advantage of what each season has to offer is one of the many delights of gardening.
This reliable turning of the year’s cycle and all its harbingers is another of the things gardeners love about their pastime. The idea of spring coming helps steady us in the dark days and long nights of winter. When we’re battling through icy winds in December or looking out at the sun setting all too early in January, there is the thought that it won’t last – like every season, winter has to make way for the coming of spring.
Of course, it’s not just gardeners who look forward to the lighter evenings from the depths of winter but gardeners have a more active, involved way of looking forward to spring. We plant bulbs in autumn for the beauty and scent they will offer us just when we’re at the end of our patience with the dark and cold, but we do it also because the anticipation of their coloured blooms is pleasurable in itself.
We can indulge in that anticipation on days of weak winter light and hoary frosts, looking at the pots and patches in the border where we planted the bulbs and remember which varieties we planted, the heights and shapes and colours we expect, and imagine how they might look in certain lights. We contemplate whether we planted them with enough depth and spacing, and if they can really be putting down roots and getting ready to send up shoots when the ground looks like a stretch of tundra.
And then, when finally things begin to stir, the first disturbance of the soil where the bulb shoot tips are pushing up, the early glimpses of green: we notice and appreciate every detail. The knowledge that spring will come around again to fill our dark streets with light, and warm the soil into life is something to cling to. On those grey days when the sun never quite seems to reach us, it is a source of hope.
This might be the time of year when you run out to hang the laundry and run back in clutching your fingertips and afraid to stop moving. The hyacinths have come and gone, the daffodils are putting up buds, the first bees have been foraging after their long sleep and I’m looking ahead to the frogs coming back to spawn in the pond, to the tulip display and the apple blossom. And this delicious anticipation of the pleasures to come is a gardening superpower, available to newbies as much as to the old hands. Happy Gardening.