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February 2018
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Its About More Than Just Growing Food

It seems like barely a week goes by when I don’t receive an email from someone telling me about how gardening has pulled them through a tough time in their life.  And I don’t mean pulled through just in the sense that it provided food but rather a cheap and very effective form of therapy.

I have, myself, spoken of this phenomenon in Episodes called Why I Garden and The Other Benefits of Gardening. 

But I only just touched on the aspect of therapeutic gardening.  It goes so much beyond that.  Gardening really can save lives.  I sometimes look at gardening in the short term sense in this regard.  When you lose someone you love, or you feel the stress of the world you can go to the garden.  But for some people these things aren’t short term things.

One example is the mentally ill.  It seems that the sense of regularity, responsibility and nature can actually “even” people out.  Gardening allow the brain to focus on something that is healthy and natural.  There is also a strong sense of accomplishment from growing things in the garden.  That’s not even accounting for the power of eating healthy and the benefits of spending time outdoors. 

I’ve spoken of the faith/hope link in gardening before but a 2008 study summarizes it best here: 

There appears to be an intrinsic relationship between gardening and hope. The very action of planting a seed in the soil requires hope; by encouraging and in some senses almost imposing a sense of hope on to someone, a personal journey may begin.

 Gardening by its very nature is also one big constant problem solving activity.  What is this bug?  Why is my plant not growing?  How do I utilize my inputs best?  This push into problem solving is a huge stimulator for the brain as well as an occupier.  Once engrossed in problem solving a person can think of little else. 

Another example of a group of people that can benefit therapeutically from gardening is soldiers returning from war.  This article best exemplifies one of those programs.  An exerpt from the article:

Baza Novic, 32, is a Los Angeles based permaculture designer and an ex-Marine, who says, “We can learn so much just by observing and mimicking nature.” Novic says that his daily exposure to gardens and nature has helped him overcome the traumas of military duty and still allows him to protect and serve his community–and his country–in exciting new ways.

One thing I did not realize though prior to writing this article is that not only is the practice of therapeutic gardening for soldiers not new but its not even relegated to peacetime.  Below is a striking photo of a British World War I soldier tending to a battlefield garden. 

Apparently these gardens are known as “Defiant Gardens”. 

 I could not believe that as a gardener and student of history I had never heard of this.  But soldiers have been doing this in wartime ON THE BATTLEFIELD for ages.  Another type of WWI garden was the trench garden, a diversion of the horrors of the new mechanized warfare and a way to pass the time and occupy the mind for the soldiers mired in trenches.

Another wartime garden was called the Barbed Wire Garden.  Prisoners of war during World War II were able to grow food during captivity to both keep their minds occupied as well as supplementing rations that were insufficient for a healthy existence.  An excerpt from this article below:

And then there was the late John Creech, a World War II infantry officer who survived several German prisoner-of-war camps to become director of the US National Arboretum in Washington in the 1970s. He jokingly introduced himself to Helphand as “the only soldier ever awarded a medal for gardening.”

There was more to it than that, of course: After being moved to a camp in Poland that had an unused greenhouse, Creech talked his captors into letting him operate it for raising edibles.

His “barbed wire garden” supplemented a moldy bread and watered-down-soup diet for 1,500 fellow prisoners. It also earned him a Bronze Star for merit, which he was said to have valued more than the Silver Star won earlier for gallantry in action.

“All such gardens were an assertive action, not a retreat,” Helphand says. “Some gardens were attacks. There was a certain defiance about them.”

Helphand’s book Defiant Gardens can be found at the link below:


If that doesn’t make you look at gardening in a new way I don’t know what will!


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