Gardens, Mental Health and Wellbeing

Learn about the human need for engagement with nature and how 'living laboratories' can provide further research.

By Oxford Botanic Garden and Arboretum

Dr Chris Thorogood (2020)Oxford Botanic Garden and Arboretum

Dr Chris Thorogood on the medicinal garden
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"Oxford Botanic Garden was established in 1621 as a physic garden in which medicinal plants were grown to educate the medical students at the university on the uses and properties of plants. Today, we live in an era of nature deficit disorder and the garden is a place of healing for that. Oxford Botanic Garden was established as a garden of medicine and it still is – but in a different way.”

Dr Chris Thorogood, Deputy Director and Head of Science, Oxford Botanic Garden and Arboretum

View of a butcher's shop (February 1888 - 1888) by Vincent van GoghOriginal Source: View of a Butcher's Shop

The need has never been more urgent. Poor mental health is reported to be the largest single cause of disability worldwide. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the World Health Organisation estimated that 1 in 10 people globally suffer from a mental disorder (WHO 2019).

Far more people suffer from poor mental wellbeing that does not reach clinical severity, but still limits human happiness and fulfilment. The pandemic has increased levels of anxiety, distress low mood in both children and adults. Stretched health services and the social isolation caused by government restrictions or ‘lockdown’ measures have made also made it even harder for people to access the help they need. 

Central Letchworth Garden City, Hertfordshire (2009-12-04) by Damian Grady, English HeritageHistoric England

Green spaces as places of healing

Green spaces, including gardens, offer a place of sanctuary and healing.  A study by the University of Exeter and the Royal Horticultural Society found that people who spend time in a domestic garden are significantly more likely to report general good health, better  psychological wellbeing and greater physical activity levels than those who do not.  

The benefits apply whether people spend their time gardening or simply relaxing. Dr Sian de Bell, lead author of the study, said: “whilst being able to access an outdoor space such as a garden or yard is important, using that space is what really leads to benefits for health and wellbeing” (Landscape and Urban Planning, 2020). This highlights the importance of private gardens alongside communal green space in housing planning.     

'Socially Distancing Gardeners', Dulwich, Greater London (2020-04-24) by Sara LloydHistoric England

A British Medical Journal review of thirty-years of global research into the impacts of gardens and gardening on health has shown links between gardens and improved mental wellbeing, increased physical activity and a reduction in social isolation. The review provided health strategy guidance to help refer people with long term health conditions to socially-prescribed, non-clinical interventions involving gardening and gardens (BMJ, 2020). 

Such interventions could also reduce the financial burden on health services. In 2020, a National Ecosystem Assessment calculated that living with a regular view of a green space can provide health benefits worth £300 per person per year (NERC, 2020).

Capturing nature (2017)Oxford Botanic Garden and Arboretum

Gardens offer a mix of ‘prospect’ and ‘refuge’. Unlike wild areas such as woodlands, gardens are enclosed and may be less likely to be perceived as being claustrophobic, creating a sense of safety. 

Common mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression can be characterised by repetitive thoughts and behaviours, and ‘black and white thinking’. The immersive and sensory stimuli of the garden – the sounds, smells and sights – may help to disrupt these thought patterns.

Visitors socially distancing on a bench (2020)Oxford Botanic Garden and Arboretum

Perhaps unsurprisingly then, there has been a sharp rise in engagement with gardens during the COVID-19 pandemic. At a time of isolation, gardens offer the promise of contact with something real, something living. 

As garden centres were overwhelmed with the demand for seeds and bulbs, so too were gardens with the appetite for visitors. During extended periods of lockdown in 2020, when many leisure and social amenities such as shopping centres, museums, restaurants and sporting venues were closed, botanic gardens and arboreta were permitted to remain open for exercise and wellbeing benefits. They were a refuge for local communities.

A family walking at the Arboretum (2020)Oxford Botanic Garden and Arboretum

Wellbeing at Oxford Botanic Garden and Arboretum

Oxford Botanic Garden and Arboretum (OBGA) offers visitors a green oasis of calm in the centre of Oxford, and a mosaic of natural habitats including ancient woodland, meadows and glades just outside the city centre. 

Who needs chairs? (2017)Oxford Botanic Garden and Arboretum

Just as in other parts of the country, these green spaces were a lifeline to the communities of Oxfordshire during the pandemic. In just six months in 2020, OBGA welcomed 42,000 visitors – a 150% increase on recent annual averages. 

Bluebell woodOxford Botanic Garden and Arboretum

Before the pandemic struck, OBGA had begun to place greater focus on wellbeing. A regular programme of events at the sites focusses on wellbeing, incorporating utilising the unique elements of green spaces and nature- and heritage-inspired backdrops. 

These include forest bathing (or Shinrin-Yoku), a Japanese tradition that connects all the human senses with nature, in particular through yin yoga, meditation and mindful walking.

Reading a book (2019)Oxford Botanic Garden and Arboretum

Meanwhile aromatherapy sessions use plants to demonstrate the mood spectrum: citrus for invigoration, rose and geranium for self-love and nurture, finishing with lavender for relaxation.

Many of these activities have been tailored as technology-free stress-soothers for students living in the pressured academic environment of Oxford. 

Winter at the Garden (2019)Oxford Botanic Garden and Arboretum

All of these activities are highly valued by participants. However we need more reliable evidence on how effective they are and what works for whom. Gardens and arboreta like those of OBGA are havens for trees and wildlife that may be ‘living laboratories’ to understand better how people connect with nature, and what impact this has. And never more so than after a national lockdown, when our innate appetite for nature was shut off from us.

Britain's oldest botanic gardenOxford Botanic Garden and Arboretum

A key future focus for OBGA will be to collaborate with scientists at the University of Oxford's Department of Psychiatry and NIHR Oxford Health Biomedical Research Centre to carry out research into the impact of green space has on mental health and wellbeing.

The “living laboratory” will enable us to to measure effects on emotion and cognition and to quantify therapeutic effects. As we know, green spaces have been factored into our urban landscapes inadequately. Now, our research-led approach will help us understand for example, what to plant, at what scale, and where; what ‘dose of green’ is needed?

Japanese maple, Acer japonicum (2018)Oxford Botanic Garden and Arboretum

Now, more than ever, we can harness the therapeutic power of the garden.

Acidic grasslandsOxford Botanic Garden and Arboretum

“Nature is not only nice to have, but it’s a have-to-have for physical health and cognitive function.”
 
Matthew White, European Centre for Environment & Human Health, University of Exeter

The need for engagement with nature and green spaces

We have long recognised that nature is ‘good for us’ but its effects can be difficult to quantify. As human populations become more urbanised we are losing access to green space, and this is impacting people’s mental health. This will become a growing problem with increasing deforestation and climate change.  change. We need to address the need for greater access to nature and green spaces.     

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