COLUMN: Garden news from the world of science

Published on June 24, 2014

Much like the committed gardeners who read this column, I have been thinking a lot lately. When you are hoeing down weeds, trimming winter damaged shrubs, planting, mulching, digging and generally mucking about in the dirt, all kinds of things pass through your mind. It is not that we are engaging our body in gardening activity without also engaging our head in thinking activity. In fact, to a very large extent, that is the point of the exercise. A morning of gardening not only clears the mind, it generates some pretty awesome thoughts. I can't tell you how many times I have come back into the kitchen to quench a thirst or satisfy some other natural craving with a thought on my mind that I absolutely must share. “Say honey, I was thinking...” and that is my wife’s first clue that my time out there has been productive. Or not, depending on the thought. 

It is a great relief then that Queen Elizabeth’s former doctor recently made the following proclamation [or is it just royalty that can do that?]:  “We should prescribe more gardening and we need more public parks and gardens.”

According to Sir Richard Thompson, who was one of 12 speakers at the AIPH International Green City Conference in London in early April, there are huge potential savings to the National Health Service (which is the equivalent of Health and Welfare Canada).

"I suggest that we should prescribe more gardening and make more gardens.  We want more parks," he said. 

Thompson, who was the doctor to Her Majesty for 21 years before retiring from active practice, said the benefits of gardens to mental and physical health have been known for centuries. He cites the court gardens of Egypt that were created for mental health and he drew attention to Japan, where there is a long history of contemplation gardens. Thompson referenced a 2002 study by Robert Ulrich in which hospital gardens were found to improve the mood of patients and reduced the stress of families and staff alike. 

He noted that having ornamental plants outdoors and indoors led to less use of painkillers and that just viewing plants improved people’s heart rate. Trees and parks are important as they remove harmful particles from the air, another massive cause of disease.


A gym outside your window

Thompson said: "Inactivity is the fourth leading cause of death. We must increase activity and improve the environment for people to exercise in. A lot of people think that backs are damaged by gardening but if you garden properly, it increases the strength of your back.  Some people say there is a gym outside of your window."

He pointed out that digging burns more calories than running on a treadmill. 

Finally, Thompson drew attention to the cash-strapped municipal budgets for parks and trees and begged that politicians search further for answers to funding. Citizens also have a responsibility to draw the issues of public green spaces to the attention, especially during an election. Remember: trees and green spaces do not have a voice until we give them one.


One in three households are digging in

In other news, a recent survey of Americans concluded that the popularity of food gardening is on the rise. According to the National Garden Association there has been a 17 per cent jump in households south of our border growing fruits and vegetables. In 2013, an estimated 42 million households enjoyed harvesting their own garden goodies. They spent about $3.5 billion on food gardening last year. 

People ages 18 to 34 make up the fastest growing population of home gardeners. This demographic doubled its spending on food-related gardening supplies. Households with children took up the trowel and rose by 25 per cent over five years. 

Urban-farming on rooftops and patios is sprouting at a quick pace.  There are now more than nine million of them in America. 

While it is not accurate to say that we can take 10 per cent of these numbers to translate them into similar Canadian statistics, it is reasonable to suggest that our per-capita investment in food gardening may be even greater than in the States. Similar stats published in the past here in Canada have indicated that we generally throw ourselves into the thing with greater enthusiasm than Americans do. Is this due to our greater propensity for physical exercise? Our need to get out of doors after a longer winter? Or are we just naturally more appreciative of the natural world around us and therefore more eager to engage in it? I will let you be the judge. 


Garden trends

I have my own notions of how the business of Canada's most popular leisure time outdoor activity is changing. We are growing more food, planting more native species in our gardens, moving in the direction of a more sustainable model for the average home garden (with a dramatic drop in the use of chemicals) and we are introducing our children and grandchildren to the natural world of soil, plants and trees to a much greater degree than we did just a generation ago. It is heartening, then, for me to see that an American survey of garden writers confirms much of what I believe to be true of Canadians.

Susan McCoy, president of Garden Media Group and an American garden trends 'spotter' says, "We are beginning to truly understand the relationship between gardening and connecting with nature — and how this can lead to a fully satisfied, purposeful life." 

Her observations include:

• A greater number of chickens being raised in urban environments.

• Gardeners are integrating edibles into woody landscapes and perennial gardens.  Planting more native species to benefit pollinating bees, hummingbirds and butterflies; recycling objects into interesting containers for plants and using Pinterest to share ideas and inspire others to garden.

• Where ornamental gardens are concerned, colour is king. The market is now rife with new introductions of annual and perennial repeat bloomers. We sometimes call these 'ever bloomers' as they never go out of bloom, until they die.  Check out the new petunias, geraniums, heuchera, gaura and, for outstanding foliage and flowers, hosta varieties. 

• The idea of the perfectly quaffed, trimmed and sculpted garden is now dead, according to me. McCoy puts it this way: "Homeowners are relaxing their notions of what’s 'right' in their landscapes to embrace seasonal drama and its disorder." 

I say, bring on the fallen leaves come autumn and the blowsy, informality of a garden that looks like Mother Nature had a hand in it!

The trends of gardening these days should give us hope and energy for a new generation of planters and planners who see our overall endeavour as one that partners with the power of nature rather than fight with it.


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Mark Cullen is Canada’s best-known gardening broadcaster and writer. He is the spokesperson for Home Hardware Lawn and Garden. Sign up for his free monthly newsletter at and watch him Wednesday mornings on Canada AM. His column, which focuses on our growing zone, appears in the Hants Journal every two weeks.