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The power of growing green

When Clemmie Hambro had her first baby, a surprising new passion took hold: Gardening. She explores the power of bringing new life into the world – with our green fingers.

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Photo: Matt Montgomery

Eleven years ago, just after I got married and had my first baby, I became obsessed with the garden at our holiday home in Devon. The mess and chaos filled me with a sense of despair but the romance of its exuberance also filled me with a strange desire to get out there and do something. But I had no idea where to begin.

I began to tentatively tinker without knowing what on earth I was doing. But it turned out that it didn’t really matter.  What mattered was the process of what I was doing.  I wanted to know more so I went on a few courses. I began writing about gardening. My knowledge and skills improved but what I loved was the same  – when I was gardening I often became totally immersed in what I was doing: the cutting, the digging, the planting, the smell of the soil, the successes, the failures and then the glorious exhaustion and aching muscles at the end of the day. It made me happy.

The science of soil

In turns out I’m not alone in finding that gardening is “more than just a task”. According to Mary Elizabeth Gifford of Demeter and Board President of Stellar Organic (America’s first Organic certifier)  gardening is “a way to awaken ourselves to the beauty of nature and the simplicity of life through a connection to the soil. But whereas before that was 90% magic and 10% science, we now know that it is actually 90% science and 10% magic”.

New studies show that exposure to the beneficial bacteria in the soil boosts serotonin levels, which in turn is linked to immune response and mood.  That same exposure to the soil is also shown to have reduced inflammation in the colon and additionally has a significant effect on your microbiome.

Finding your happy place

It’s not just the body that is affected by the soil. The visual pleasure gained from looking at a beautiful garden has been shown to significantly reduce levels of cortisol. The act of planting and growing can be part of a personal journey but also part of a wider one, which in turn benefits the individual.

In a survey of their members, The International Allotment Society found that even though members tended allotments to provide fresh food for their families, over a quarter of members found that the main benefit was getting outside and socialising, enjoying the sense of being part of a community.  Allotments are often located in heavily built up areas and housing estates. Their very existence raises biodiversity levels in inner cities and creates vital ‘green corridors’ which stop wildlife becoming trapped by impassable concrete.

Photo: Eco Warrior Princess

Empowering a road to recovery

In the UK, Maggie’s Cancer centres (groundbreaking therapeutic spaces to help cancer patients) are built by cutting edge architects to provide solace, care and information to patients with cancer. The gardens are intrinsic parts of the whole build, with gardening groups run to help combat the sense of social isolation that is an often overlooked outcome of cancer diagnosis. As well as keeping the garden at the Centres looking beautiful, taking part in a gardening group can improve strength and muscle tone through physical activity, as well as connect people.  When asked why they liked to take part in the groups, a visitor replied, “To plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow”.

Get back in touch with your spiritual side

To garden is physical work, but it is through this physical process that we can reconnect with the nature, the soil, and the rhythms of the seasons. It is an act that provides spiritual and emotional nourishment. Gifford believes that there is a “democratisation of gardening sweeping the world” as we find ourselves in a society where every aspect has increased connectivity online, yet can be so very physically and emotionally isolated.

In the absence of other cultural institutions that have bound us together historically, such as the church or civic duty, people are increasingly looking at ways to reconnect to themselves and nature. As Gifford says,  “the simplest way is pushing a seed into a pot of soil and watching it grow. Being pulled away from the cadences of the natural world is not inevitable and can and should be reversed. There is much to be positive about”.

So fight the battle against feeling dislocated, isolated, bored, confused, lonely, tired or angry with dirty hands, dirty knees, lungfuls of air, sun on your back, rosy cheeks and a vase of sweet peas for summer.

Clemmie's tips on how to get growing

Spring is the perfect time to introduce more growing into your life. Don’t try to do lots of things at once, as this tends to lead to expensive mistakes, such as unnecessary kit or the wrong plants and then giving up entirely.

Deal with that dull patch

If you have a garden, concentrate on a specific area. Is there a particularly barren corner? Spend an afternoon weeding and then scatter a wildflower seed mix. I have also done this in large pots with some success. Rake the soil, then mix the seeds with a few handfuls of sand and scatter them vertically and then horizontally across the bare soil and gently water in. This will look merely green and unexciting for a while, but then, come summer, will explode into a colorful, bee fest that makes your heart sing.

Create a 'green wall'

An unloved, shady bit of wall can transformed with a few ferns. Find some galvanized metal pots. Make sure there some holes in the bottom for drainage, and hammer them into the wall.  Plant up with ferns such as the deer fern (Blechnum spicant) and stand back and enjoy your ‘green wall’.

Visualise the season ahead

Planting for winter interest is always a good idea and many of these shrubs have fantastic scent. Winter box (Sarcococca confusa) has a powerful, jasmine-like scent from its white star-shape flowers. Daphne bholua ‘Jacqueline Postil’ has clusters of highly scented, deep pink flowers. Both of these can be in pots by your front door to perk up the long winter months with beauty and perfume.

Photo: Kyle Ellefson

Shortcuts to sweet scents

Growing from seed is cheap and immensely satisfying but can be maddening if they don’t germinate. For a more foolproof, yet just as rewarding experience, the plug plant is your friend. You will find them in any self-respecting garden centre. Sweet pea plugs are perfect for a summer of cut flowers, as the more you pick the more they grow and will keep going right into September.

You will need a small, sunny outside space like a front porch or patio and a large-ish pot (sweet peas have long tap roots), into which plunge about four or five bamboo canes. Tie these together at the top, so they are fanning out in a teepee shape and then again at intervals of about six inches all the way down (creating a sort of ladder for the plants to climb up). Make a long hole either side of each pole and place the plug plants into each one and firm in. They will slowly climb up your string and then erupt into the most fragrant, beautiful candy-coloured flowers you have ever seen.

The city veg box

Depending on your climate, other things that only require a pot, a sunny spot and a teepee to climb are runner beans, cherry tomatoes, peas and cucumbers. Climbers are good for city life, as they don’t take up lateral space. Keep them well watered to avoid disappointment.

Kitchen saviours

A mini herb garden planted in a window box is a really easy way to enliven your cooking and your soul. Stay away from the pots of herbs you find in supermarkets as these have been overplanted and tend to die immediately. Try your local farmers market or car boot sale and buy young plants. The stalwarts are rosemary, thyme, sage and oregano. Other interesting ones are dill, tarragon, fennel, chervil, chives and lemon balm.

Lemon verbena makes delicious tea as well as mint – but plant mint in a separate pot because if you turn your back for five minutes, it has bullied everything else into submission and taken over. An unusual one is pineapple mint (Mentha suaveolens), which has oval cream, and green variegated leaves and also is great in salads.

Nasturtiums, heartsease and borage have edible flowers – perfect for beautifying salads or drinks. Basil prefers to be grown inside on a sunny windowsill, as do chilli plants.

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