Put your hands in the earth and grow
By Mina Hayati, Community Engagement Officer
We felt spoilt for choice when selecting some of these images of herbarium: wildflowers and plants in the Heritage Doncaster collection. Some date from the late 19th century. Others were collected in the 1970s and 1980s to show the biodiversity of Doncaster. During this time, Thorne and Hatfield Moors were being decimated for peat extraction. Some plant and insect specimens were collected to prove that it was necessary to save the moors because of all the different species that grew there.
Flower pressings of various herbarium all from late 1800s to the turn of the 20th century. Images: Heritage Doncaster Collection.
Gardening, and exposure to plants and flowers, even on a small scale has significant positive effects on our health and wellbeing and this is something we explore further in this blog. Whether you are a keen gardener, a reluctant one or eager to get started, we hope that these images and this blog post might inspire you to get more green-fingered, take up a new gardening-related hobby or even just look out for wildflowers on your next local walk.
There is so much we could cover in a blog, relating to gardening, the history surrounding it and well-being related activities. We are blossoming with ideas, but we’ve had to trim back and narrowed it down to cover the following:
- A brief history of gardening in England
- Explore the mental physical benefits of gardening
- Explore a few practical ideas for mindfulness activities that relate to gardening
A brief history of the English garden: From the Romans to ‘Dig for Victory’
The Romans (27 BC – 476 AD): The Romans played a big part in the history of English gardening. According to the Roman historian Tacitus, (56- 120 AD), Britain was a country ‘of frequent rain and mist’ and the British characteristic of complaining about the weather can be traced back to the Roman Empire. The Romans used plants of various forms for medicine and eating and imported many new varieties of flora in to Britain. In fact many well-known edible plants that are considered common staples to the British diet were introduced by the Romans. These include ingredients like onions, garlic and leeks, as well as, cucumbers, early carrot varieties, pears, cherries and many more.
The Romans were probably the first to garden for pleasure. Roman style gardens were known for their symmetry, low box hedges, open green spaces decorated with statues and sometimes water features.
Medieval: Monasteries and manor houses dictated the garden style of the medieval period. These were often small and enclosed spaces. Monastic gardens provided medicine and food for the monks and for the local community.
Tudor and Stuarts (1500- 1700): Differences between garden styles of the Tudors and Stuarts were mainly to do with scale with the later Stuart gardens being built on new ideas and being grander in scale. They were influenced by the Renaissance, Italian and French styles. One of the most significant developments was that of relating the garden to the house and vice versa. Renaissance gardens were designed to enhance and complement the architecture of the house. Formal lines and simple geometric shapes dominated. Tudor gardens were more enclosed, with lots of hedges or walls.
Victorian Gardens: Gardens of this time were renowned for their exotic colours, variety and intricate designs. The most influential gardeners of the Victorian era were J.C. Loudon, and later, Joseph Paxton, these were the names behind the Chatsworth House gardens, Derbyshire and Kew Gardens in London. During this time public gardens became available to the masses. Tastes in the late Victorian period varied between formal and the wild.
Dig for Victory: During the Second World War gardening for pleasure and aesthetics was not a priority. Huge areas of land were cleared to grow millions of tons of food to feed the nation during the war effort. Making sure people were well and fed was a national priority during a time of rations. A campaign to encourage everyone to grow their own was ‘Dig For Victory’ it swooped the nation. Lots of Doncaster’s park land was turned over to allotments. Cookbooks focused on resourcefulness in the kitchen and making the most of vegetables and ingredients available during this time of national hardship.
Now: Today gardening has become something that people from all backgrounds and of all ages can enjoy. A recent survey revealed that over 50 per cent of British people described themselves as gardeners. It also contributes to a big portion of the British economy. The gardening industry was an estimated £4.9 billion in 2017.
The benefits of gardening for our health
There is no denying the benefits of gardening for our physical and mental wellbeing. Research has shown gardening can make you live longer! A recent BBC article showed a study of the five places around the world where residents are famed for their longevity: Okinawa in Japan, Nicoya in Costa Rica, Icaria in Greece, and Loma Linda in California and Sardinia in Italy. Certain things connected these communities including good diets, exercise habits and social activity and another key factor seemed to be that people were gardening well in to old age; in their 80s and even 90s. (Reference: https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20181210-gardening-could-be-the-hobby-that-helps-you-live-to-100)
Do you love the smell of the earth after it rains? Many find it calming and there is some plausible scientific reasoning behind this. Research has shown that that soil microbes have similar effects on the brain as some chemicals in antidepressants. Although it is important to note here that soil contains other bacteria and microbes too so it is always important to wash your hands after gardening.
Personality types and gardening
There are many styles of gardening. The English poet Alfred Austin said “Show me your garden and I shall tell you what you are.” Perhaps your garden reflects a bit of you and your personality. Gardeners have different styles and interests. You may like a wild garden that you manage and cultivate to attract wildlife and biodiversity. You may be someone who likes a very neat and organised garden, a lawn that is regularly mown, weeds that are regular plucked. You may like a mixture. Whether you are a wild gardener or prefer a more ordered garden, all types of gardens are to be admired!
Mindfulness in the garden
At the time of writing this (June 2020) garden centres have recently reopened with social distancing measures in place and many still do deliveries. Gardening need not be expensive though.
A mindfulness activity can be defined as any activity that helps you to focus on the present and keep worries about the past and the future at bay. People who try gardening, even if reluctant at first often find themselves getting absorbed in it and passing the time without realising. It’s almost like you lose all sense of time when you are crouched down amongst nature. It’s almost like being close to the earth create its own little time warp! When you finish and step back, you are likely to feel very satisfied when you see the fruits of your labour.
Decide what activity you are going to do. Set your intention for example you might decide to go and do some weeding, you might be planting cucumbers or other vegetables or flowers.
- Be in the present.
- Consider what you feel?
- What can you smell? The lush smell of freshly cut grass, scented honey suckle, freshly grown tomatoes.
- What can you hear? The sound of birds singing in the shade?
- What can you see? The way the flowers look the beauty all around.
- If worries come to mind imagine them as clouds blowing away and refocus on the task in hand.
Gardening for all
A pot of basil or most herbs from the supermarket can be cultivated to last a long time if cared for and managed correctly. Basil also great for salads, paired with tomato and pizzas. Key tips for basil are lots of sunlight and plenty of water. Use your fingers to nip paired leaves from the top and to give way to new growth.
A window box may give you some solace if you don’t have a garden. Geraniums are a great plant and are perennial; they can be regrown year after year. Great varieties for hanging baskets include geraniums, begonias, petunia.
Get all the family involved
Gardening can be fun for all the family! You could give children a suitable age appropriate spade to dig up earth, plant sunflowers. You can also teach them about weeds and show them how to remove them carefully- even if using their hands. Familiarise them with nettles so they know they’ll get ‘ouchy’ hands if they touch them! Help them learn and grow!
You can also have fun with nature in other ways. You could use cuttings and leaves as the back drop for fun imaginative games with toy figures, adventure lands, fairy caves and dinosaurs dens.
Look out for wildflowers
On a walk out in to nature you might want to consider looking more at the cracks in the pavement beneath your feet! Have you noticed the beautiful wildflowers between the gaps or spilling over the hedges and walls on your route?
Cusworth Park has a number of wildflower areas set aside to increase biodiversity in the park, long grass creates habitats for insects, butterflies and small mammals. In Low Piece at the bottom of the park you may notice some wildflowers such as Yellow Rattle Rhinanthus minor this is known as the “meadow maker” as it is semi parasitic living off the nutrients of dominant grasses it allows more delicate and traditional wildflower species to grow through. Ladys Mantle or Alchemilla vulgaris has also been spotted in Low Piece a herbaceous perennial forming a clump of softly hairy, light green leaves and small, bright yellow flowers are in large sprays just above the foliage.
We maintain semi improved grassland such as Low Piece by cutting sections back in October leaving “wildlife pockets” cutting back helps maintain a diverse mix of grasses and flowers.
We hope that this post has planted a seed and that you will reap the rewards both mentally and physically of doing wildflower spotting or some gardening related activity; whether that be cultivating a pot of basil or rooting up weeds. We are confident that it will give you a mindfulness break, peace and calm.