I still remember the first time I saw a pea sprout. Out came the root just as the teacher had predicted and the cotton wad on which it had been placed was handed around gingerly to all one by one to see and marvel at. Much of that innocent wonder has been lost to most of us today. A garden is pretty and the flowers … yes, prettier. And that is it.
As life rushes by, daily we race with the clock, never pausing for an instant to look around us. Sadly enough most of what we Pakistani city dwellers do see around is not calming in itself. The eyes see rows after rows of residential areas or shops. Green strips are rare and for the apartment dwellers, the odd plant or two in the balcony is considered ornamental enough. Still rarer is the concept of
working in ones own garden and thus we see maalis bearing the brunt of the equation. Additional work, you think? Maybe yes. But then again, it may be just what the doctor ordered…
The benefits of gardening are so diverse that in several parts of the world, horticulture therapy has been inculcated into clinical practice where it provides relief and hope to patients with all kinds of problems ranging from low mood to the omniscient stress and worry that punctuates most modern lifestyles. More than anything, gardening is what you make it.
Researchers agree that physically the effects of gardening are quite obvious. Forget about paying extra for the gym, as gardening provides one of the best aerobic exercises that give strength and flexibility to the bones and the muscles alike as well as the cardiovascular and respiratory systems. However, care should be taken with regard to posture while lifting heavy objects.
Psychologically speaking, the effects are slower, yet they run deep. In the long run, sleep and appetite can be regulated pretty well by a regular dose of gardening. A routine can be structured around the watering and weeding process that can stimulate the appetite as desired depending on the amount of work done and gift ease in sleeping to the sleepless. The natural rhythm is in more than one way, fine tuned.
A thing of beauty is a joy forever wrote Keats and these oft quoted lines bring every planted bulb to life. Whether it is a lonely heart, a sad one or a merely pensive one, the sight of flora and fauna is soothing to the senses. Poetic sentiment isn’t the only plus point here. The physical work associated with caring for an entire garden is said to release endorphins that in turn alleviate stress. Apart from working in a garden, simply being in one also works wonders for the mood and stress levels. This effect can be heightened through a water garden that ideally has gently flowing water or at least includes some source of water whether a basin or a pond. The sound of water such as that in water features like fountains and imitation waterfalls stimulates the mental capacities and reduces tension inside a person. Visually too, the same effects are felt but over a longer time duration.
The process can be meditative as well. The sense of here and now it exudes, quietens the ever critical conscious mind as the individual can finally allow himself to simply… be. The innocent wonder comes surging back at the tiniest instances: a new shoot, the sight of bees around the first flower of the season, or even butterflies twirling merrily round the flowerbeds.
Creative potential can be explored too as a constructive outlook can allow the
individual to experiment with various landscapes, lighting conditions and
embellishments. The sense of achievement this brings also builds confidence and
provides on the whole a very healthy outlet for pent up emotions.
Still, a garden or even nature is far from being picture perfect all the time. Buds wilt, plants die, and entire gardens are destroyed by pests, stray animals, heavy
rain or the burning sun. The farsighted gardener often recycles dead leaves and
plants as compost in the gardening sphere and life goes on. Gardening then, for
the regulars acts as a microcosmic world, analogous to the one outside but far
safer. The temperament of a gardener in the long run becomes peaceful and
positive – from one season to the next, as the mind tends to dwell more on what
will grow, while enjoying the present and respecting the past.
Horticulture therapy has been in practice for quite a few decades now but its beginnings can be traced back to the time of the ancient Greek physician Asclepius who prescribed rest near streams and shady woods as treatment for most illnesses. Dr Benjamin Rush, the Father of American Psychiatry, in the 19th century called gardens curative for people who were emotionally disturbed. Yet, it was the rehabilitation centres emerging in the 1950s that made horticulture therapy popular. In Pakistan, its practice is not yet structured, nor indeed is it known by this name, but individuals have made efforts on their own to involve the elderly, the emotionally disturbed and the mentally challenged in ‘activities’ involving gardening. In its essence, horticulture therapy involves guiding individuals with various emotional issues in their lives towards a better future by empowering them in all phases of the horticulture process from propagation to selling products as a form of satisfaction. This may be internal, allowing for enjoyment of the produce by the person and his family or external through monetary benefits.
Different emotional states require different kinds of stimulation and at different
levels. For those feeling low, sitting in a garden without flowers may be
beneficial to some extent, but not as beneficial as sitting in one with flowers. For the mentally challenged or for those with sensory disabilities, especially children who are intended to work with plants, it is essential that plants are planted for their variations of texture or colour or fragrance rather than the price tag that comes with them. Variations provide a richness of experience unparalleled by mere human toys. Using the bare hands to plant, weed or dig in, provides a sense of purpose and fulfilment when small goals are met and merge into larger ones.
For those with motor disabilities gardening can be made easier by raising the beds at least two feet from the ground and making paths between them broader so that manoeuvring becomes easier.
On an individual level, each of us is as responsible for our own emotional health as for that of our families. Living in and loving a garden, whether it is spread over acres or is restricted to a balcony, has its rewards that can not be judged lightly. With the alarming rate of emotional disturbance amongst many issues that is spreading rapidly in our country, a healthy, constructive activity acts as a
panacea and in the long run, helps us grow… together.