Gardening lessons at school would benefit nation’s health

Tending to the garden can have positive benefits for health, both physically and mentally. Picture:

Tending to the garden can have positive benefits for health, both physically and mentally. Picture: PA Photo/Thinkstockphotos - Credit: PA

Gardening on the NHS. Potting geraniums to fight heart disease, feeding rhododendrons to treat dementia, digging up dandelions and scarifying the lawn as therapy and healing for mental illness.

It might all sound a bit quinoa-and-crystals, but medics prescribing pottering in the garden as part of the mix to treat depression, cardio problems, obesity, loneliness and other illnesses holds obvious benefits, according to research by the King's Fund.

Potting shed Prozac. Pricking-out seedlings rather than popping blister packs of pills.

Have you ever met a stressed, depressed, fat gardener? Me neither.

Anyone's who's spent just an hour hacking back a gnarly stubborn laurel will vouch for its power to lift stress, anxiety and a grey melancholy. Tinkering with nature, and bringing order and control to natural chaos of overgrowth and nurturing growth to birdsong can only be uplifting.

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It's free and outside in the fresh air. It offers quick satisfaction. It's easy to make a difference to a jungle of weeds and feel the buzz of achievement after a few hours of exercise. Win, win.

Building horticulture therapy into medical treatment is genius. So simple and obvious, it feels a bit too simple and obvious to be a real remedy to serious illnesses.

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But, in Mental Health Awareness Week when spring has sprung, the Kings Fund offers evidence of a wide range of mental and physical health outcomes and wants to get the horticulture cure translated into policy and practice. Research proves, it says, that regular gardening can cut the risk of heart disease, cancer and obesity and can also improve balance; helping to prevent falls in older people.

Depression, anxiety and stress are eased too by hours in the garden.

For dementia patients, one trial demonstrated that six months of gardening caused a slow-down of cognitive decline over 18 months.

All fantastic, if you know the first thing about gardening. The problem with the whole horticulture thing is that it's a science, and a lot of us are terrified of science.

Gardening, like cleaning, cooking and DIY, is a life skill we're supposed to pick up by osmosis and instinct.

We're not taught any of it ever. It's just supposed to happen when we grow up.

I've always believed gardening should be part of the school curriculum, not just for the future but as calming therapy for teens wrestling with the lethal cocktail of hormones which run teachers such a merry dance being cooped up in classrooms all day. It could work wonders.

But for most people, the gardening bug doesn't bite until they are over 55, when curious natural forces lure us to discover the therapeutic effect of tending a garden and helping shape nature.

Before that, we haven't a clue, bumbling around killing plants we understand nothing about and filling our gardens with 'features' that cost a fortune at the garden centre. Our garden disasters waste £672m a year, apparently.

Gardening as a compulsory school lesson – an alternative to PE and games perhaps – would work wonders.

I'm hoping my gardening gene kicks in at 55 and my toxic digits turn green. Meanwhile, my garden – more a tree-packed woodland walk than relaxing haven – continues to intimidate me with its species and varieties and mystery techniques for making it all work.

I don't know where to start but have come to appreciate the therapeutic benefit of a vigorous session of hacking back and the sense of calm mowed grass instills.

And every weekend I hang on to The Royal Horticultural Society's words that half an hour of digging burns 150 calories, raking a lawn burns 120 and pushing a lawn mower burns 165.

It's a gift for health and education chiefs – teach children the basics of gardening and it might be a step towards preventing as well as treating illnesses in later life.

Our gardens, on the cusp of their best months, are revealed as not simply another weekend chore but as cures and healers.

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