Chemical free gardening for health and wellbeing
Written by Angelo Eliades of deepgreenpermaculture.com
7 MINUTE READ
“I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in tune once more”
– John Burroughs (1837-1921), American naturalist and writer
Gardening is a very healthy hobby, on so many levels. It’s not just about filling our tummy either, there’s a lot more to be had from a well designed garden than a tasty meal!
Studies show that gardening promotes physical health, mental health through relaxation and satisfaction, and better nutrition [Source: Wakefield].
Gardening can indeed feed the body, mind and spirit!
Gardening for the Body
The primary reason why people decided thousands of years ago to grow plants was to sustain their bodies. This is still a very valid reason today, but there are many other reasons why gardening is beneficial to our physical health. Some of these are:
• Stress relief
• Brain health
Stress relief – A study in the Netherlands indicated that gardening is better at relieving stress than other relaxing leisure activities. Two groups of people were required to complete a stressful task, one group did some gardening for 30 minutes while the other group did some reading indoors over the same time. The gardening group reported being in a better mood than the reading group, and they also had lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol .
Exercise – The activity of gardening is also good for our bodies it’s healthy regular physical exercise which helps prevent of heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity, adult-onset diabetes and osteoporosis. Researchers at Kansas State University already have shown that gardening can offer enough moderate physical activity to keep older adults in shape . This was confirmed by another study where the researchers concluded that gardening is a great way for older adults to meet the physical activity recommendations set forth by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American College of Sports Medicine  .
Brain health – A study that followed people in their 60s and 70s for up to 16 years found that those who gardened regularly had a 36% lower risk of dementia than non-gardeners, even when a range of other health factors were taken into account .
Nutrition – Studies have shown that gardeners eat more fruits and vegetables than other people. The freshest food you can eat is the food you grow, and when you have access to a garden filled with fruits and vegetables, you’re able to eat some of the healthiest food you can get! A European study investigating the links between diet and disease has found that people who consume more fruit and vegetables have a lower risk of dying from ischaemic heart disease .
Healing – Interacting with nature also helps our bodies heal. A landmark study by Roger S. Ulrich, published in the April 27, 1984, issue of Science magazine, found strong evidence that nature helps heal. Ulrich, a pioneer in the field of therapeutic environments at Texas A&M University, found that patients recovering from gallbladder surgery who looked out at a view of trees had significantly shorter hospital stays, fewer complaints, and took less pain medication, than those who looked out at a brick wall .
Immunity – In 2007, University of Colorado neuroscientist Christopher Lowry, then working at Bristol University in England, made a startling discovery. He found that certain strains of harmless soil-borne Mycobacterium vaccae sharply stimulated the human immune system. It’s quite likely that exposure to soil bacteria plays an important role in developing a strong immune system .
Gardening for the Mind
• Better mental health
The same Mycobacterium vaccae, a harmless bacteria normally found in dirt that has been found to stimulate the immune system of mice and has also been found to boost the production of serotonin, a mood-regulating brain chemical. Low levels of serotonin are associated with depression. Contact with soil in the garden may actually elevate our mood .
The antidepressant properties of M.vaccae were discovered accidentally while being used for experimental human lung cancer treatment by cancer researcher Mary O’Brien at the Royal Marsden Hospital in London, England. After the patients were treated with heat-killed inoculations of the bacteria, O’Brien’s team observed not only fewer symptoms of cancer, but also improvements in their patients’ vitality, emotional health and mental abilities.
Researchers often find in their studies that subjects who participate in gardening have a positive mental outlook   . Studies reported in the Journal of Health Psychology in 2012 also show that people who feel a connection to Nature are indeed happier .
Gardening has been shown to help prevent dementia in seniors . Gardening requires you to use think, learn and use your creativity. By keeping the mind active, it serves as a protective measure against such degenerative diseases.
We must also remember that we humans are social creatures, and we maintain psychological and emotional health by interacting with one another in some form of community. Gardening connects you with people and community gardens provide an ideal opportunity for people to interact with each other. Research indicates that local gardening brings about a better sense of community   .
Gardening for the Spirit
A garden can also serve our higher needs, it can provide a harmonious space to relax, unwind, reflect and restore ourselves.
It can serve as a place where we can appreciate the beauty, form and colours
Gardening reconnects us to the cycles of Nature, these cycles are the rhythm of life itself. When we spend time in the garden, we learn to slow down, and when we get absorbed in our activities, we lose sense of all time and space, we forget out daily worries and concern, and we lose ourselves in ‘the zone’, a blissful Zen state where we are totally immersed in our activities and that timeless moment.
According to Clare Cooper Marcus, MA, MCP, professor emerita from the University of California at Berkeley, and one of the founders of the field of environmental psychology, one of the reasons why Nature may be so successful at reducing stress is that it puts the mind in a state similar to meditation. When you engage Nature, you naturally stop thinking, obsessing and worrying. Your senses are awakened, which brings you into the present moment, and this has been shown to be very effective at reducing stress, says Marcus, drawing on her own observations .
Harvard naturalist and Pulitzer Prize winner Edward O. Wilson, who coined the term biophilia (love of living things) believes that Nature holds the key to health. He believes that we have an affinity for nature because we are part of nature and would prefer to look at flowers and grass rather than concrete or steel. As part of the natural world, we are connected to and restored by it.
Studies presented at the 1999 Culture, Health, and the Arts World Symposium in England also found beneficial effects of just even looking at nature. In one study, conducted in Uppsala, Sweden, 160 postoperative heart patients were asked to look at a landscape, an abstract art work, or no picture. Those who looked at the landscape had lower anxiety, required
less pain medicine, and spent a day less in the hospital than the control group patients .
To reap these restorative benefits of Nature, all we need to do is plant a few flowers or herbs and enjoy Nature’s gift to us!
In the first article in this series, we were introduced to a wide range of studies which revealed that gardening is a very healthy hobby on many levels – gardening promotes physical health, mental health through relaxation and satisfaction, and better nutrition. The scientific evidence clearly shows that gardening can indeed feed the body, mind and spirit!
Given that gardening can offer all this, the next step is to look at the practical aspect – what we can do at home, in our own gardens, to realise these health benefits.
We gain many health benefits just by simply gardening, but we can ‘garden intentionally’ to create a richer experience both when we work in our garden, and when we just sit back and appreciate it.
There are many ways to build a garden that will nourish every aspect of our being, and what follows is one such way. Here are some simple steps to enhance your garden so that it appeals to all your senses!
A Garden for All the Senses
To really appeal to all our senses, we can build a ‘sensory garden’. This is a garden brimming with colours, scents, textures and shapes, designed with the purpose to engage as many of our senses as possible.
• We have many choices here, flowers and coloured foliage can supply a kaleidoscope of colours to feast our eyes on. Cool colours, such as blue, purple, and white tend to be calming, soothing, and promote tranquillity, whereas warm colours such as red, orange, and yellow are stimulating and promote activity.
• Herbs have interesting flowers too, as well as their main feature, scent! Many can be used for making fragrant teas.
• Culinary herbs have rich aromatic oils which provide a wonderful scent in the garden and taste in the kitchen.
• Medicinal herbs come in every shape, size and colour and can be used for maintaining our health as well as providing a stunning display in the garden.
• Tactile plants appeal to our sense of touch. Smooth, soft, silky leaves almost compel you to touch them! Springy groundcovers and succulent leaves add tactile interest to a garden, as do a few spiky plants. Choose plants that are resilient enough to be handled often.
• Aromatic plants such as the mints and scented pelargonium are the scent mimics of the plant world, they can copy such a wide range of scents found in the plant kingdom, and then some. Beyond is the usual common mint smell, peppermint and spearmint, there are mints that smell like apples, basil, chocolate, menthol and even Eau de Cologne. Not to be outdone, there are scented pelargonium that smell like lemon, lime, orange, rose, citronella, peppermint, coconut, nutmeg, bubblegum and even ‘Old Spice’ aftershave…
• Sound is an important element, and the rustling of leaves and grasses can be quite soothing, as can be the flow of water from a fountain or water feature.
• Living things enliven a garden, and habitat gardening will bring in lots of life to animate the space. Use trees and plants which attract birds and bees into the garden. Add bird baths and perches.
• Remember to create a shady, quiet spot where you can sit down, relax and enjoy the garden!
By creating a space where we can reconnect with Nature, we can provide ourselves the means to heal our mind, body and spirit, and a means heal the planet also.When we grow gardens, we grow life, which
we care for, nurture and partake in.
A bit about Angelo Eliades garden
Angelo’s Food Forest is the perfect example of permaculture gardening (all pictures are of his garden). He was the first urban demonstration Permaculture Food Forest in Melbourne. He has transformed his typical Melbourne backyard (just 150 square metres) into a very productive, organic food forest. With over 30 fruit trees, 20 plus berries, 60 plus medicinal herbs, native bush food plants, aquatic plants, root crops and more. If you get a chance to visit Melbourne in the warmer months it’s well worth a visit.
We asked Angelo a few questions about his garden and living sustainably and hope it inspires you to start something similar.
Can you give us a bit of history about yourself and what made you get into permaculture and living sustainably?
I started organic gardening in 2002, and had a real passion and thirst for knowledge. Being the kind of person that constantly read, researched and experimented, which is no surprise considering my qualifications in the biomedical sciences, I tested the various systems of gardening I encountered and drew my own conclusions.
I soon realised there were more or less two ways to garden.
One model generally emulated conventional agriculture, just on a miniature scale – lots of digging, weeding, and other hard work. This was accompanied by the use of costly chemical fertilisers and very toxic pesticides, herbicides and fungicides which really just amounted to small scale chemical warfare against Nature.
I was not convinced of the siege-mentality that was predominant in conventional gardening, the never-ending and unwinnable war against life itself. Since one of my majors was in toxicology, I was also acutely aware of the perils of the haphazard use of poisons to both people’s health and the environment.
The second broad school of thought I encountered with respect to gardening was that of sustainable gardening. The idea of minimising harm to one’s own health and to the environment, caring for the planet and the next generation of humans made very clear sense. Additionally, there were the benefits of reduced inputs, less work, the reuse and recycling of materials, especially organic materials, and less chemicals overall.
Seeing that the former model based on agribusiness was about controlling Nature through high energy inputs and at great expense to the environment, and that the alternative system of sustainable gardening took the opposite approach, working more with Nature, the glaring differences in efficiency were unmistakeable.
When proper scientific scrutiny is applied, the idea of ‘fighting Nature’ becomes increasingly irrational, considering that Nature is a fully sustainable system with a great capacity of self-regeneration, powered by an essentially infinite power source, the sun. Coupled with the fact that the way we were waging our war was by taking finite resources from the earth to manufacture chemical fertilisers and a host of deadly poisons based on petroleum derivatives. Simple logic says the finite resources will run out first, and Nature will then proceed to do as it did all along, assuming we haven’t destroyed Nature to the degree that it can no longer support our species first.
The idea of efficiency appealed to my way of thinking as a person employed in many technical roles as a problem solver in the corporate world. Disillusioned with the many dogmas and unsound or even absent science of agriculture and conventional gardening, I asked myself why should we settle for inefficiencies in a system and the consequent damage to the planet?
The more I delved into sustainable gardening, the more I encountered the taboo unspoken word in conventional gardening and agriculture, that was in their eyes an inconvenient truth – ECOLOGY!
It was clear that plants grew as systems, all life functioned as part of a greater system, and that all forms of life were interdependent elements of a greater global ecological system, humans included. No man is an island and nothing grows in a vacuum, despite the dogmas of conventional horticulture and agriculture.
Once I started looking into highly efficient systems that worked with Nature and recognised the importance of the science of ecology, I eventually came across the concept of Permaculture. In 2008 I studied Permaculture with the co-founder of the system Bill Mollison and Geoff Lawton. I went in with the intention of earning a PDC (Permaculture Design Certificate) and came out with a whole new world view which changed my life.
What makes permaculture different to ‘mainstream’ gardening?
Permaculture is essential ecological gardening, it acknowledges the existence of self-sustaining and fully sustainable ecological systems and processes, and leverages these to achieve solutions that work harmoniously with Nature. Permaculture works with Nature, not against it as conventional gardening does, and more importantly, Permaculture does not seek to build gardens, it seeks to build living ecosystems, and that is the critical difference.
How important is soil health in a garden and what are some tips on keeping it healthy?
Soil health would have to be the single most critical factor in gardening, as soil is a living ecosystem, one of the most complicated ecosystems in fact. When you consider that a tablespoon of healthy soil can contain over 30 billion organisms, the most important thing to do is keep it alive!
Soil organisms need moisture, shade and organic matter, so I use a no-dig system where organic matter is constantly added to the surface, which breaks down and creates soil as it does in nature. Earthworms dig it through the soil. It’s important to never step in the garden beds, this destroys the soil structure and compacts it, garden beds are for plants, paths are for people, keep the two separate!
Never dig the soil, turning it dries it out, and the ultraviolet radiation from the sun sterilizes it, killing all the beneficial soil microorganisms. The less you interfere with the soil, the better.
Can you tell us about your garden? Where it’s located? What size is it?
How many trees/plants you have grown?
My garden is Melbourne’s first urban Permaculture demonstration food forest which is fully documented with all produce figures available to the public through my website.
Here are some useful specifications:
• Total Size of back yard: 150 square metres
• Total size of garden (including paths): 85 square meters
• Total area of garden beds: 64 square metres (686 sq. feet)
• Fruit trees: 30+
• Berries: 20+ different types
• Medicinal herbs: 60+ different types
It was first built in 2008 and all produce was recorded for the first four years, by the fourth year the garden produced around 234kg – 161kg fruit, 11kg berries and 62kg of vegies. The figures don’t really paint a true picture as that year two of the biggest fruit trees covered in fruit were blown down by extreme winds and typically the garden produces 70-75kg of vegies without trying. Additionally, only two thirds of the trees were old enough to produce fruit at this point in time.
Despite this, 234kg from 64 square metres works out to an amazing equivalent of around 14 metric tonnes per acre, while an Australian dry-land wheat farm produces about two tonnes per acre, and the best European farms can manage around four to eight tonnes per acre, using chemical fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides.
My food forest garden is a no-dig system which utilises companion planting, so nature does a lot of the work and it’s naturally pest-free and has been that way for years. The garden is designed as a demonstration of Permaculture principles which are centred on resilience, energy efficiency, recycling of materials and use of biological resources. The garden is also water-wise garden and runs on rainwater for half the year, and with two short 50-minute waterings a week the other half (and some supplementary watering during extreme heatwaves), and can be maintained with an average of two hours’ work a week.
This pioneering garden has received recognition for what it achieves in terms of design and productivity; it won the Darebin Sustainability Award – House & Garden category in 2013, and was featured in the prestigious Open Gardens Australia event in 2014 and 2015. It is part of Sustainable Gardening Australia’s Open Gardens in 2015 and was also featured in the world leading Permaculture designer Geoff Lawton’s “Urban Permaculture” DVD.
Does this provide enough fruit, vegetables and herbs for you throughout each season?
This garden has been designed to produce continuously throughout the year and as it is a demonstration garden, I grow a lot of various types of foods, including many things I cannot eat, much of the produce is shared and given away, though I definitely use what I can eat. I never buy produce, I grow things that you can’t buy, and being organically grown, it’s all much tastier, healthier and more nutritious than most of the produce sold.
What advice would you give to people wanting to implement permaculture techniques into an existing backyard/front yard garden? How do they start?
The best way to get started into Permaculture is through education, as it’s a different mindset to conventional gardening and agriculture. Either through self study through books and videos, or formal courses. It’s also important to learn about plants as much as you can, Permaculture is an ecological design framework that you can apply to designing and building houses, or even whole communities, as much as you can to designing food production systems. Permaculture doesn’t teach horticulture, you have to bring that skill set in yourself, and the best way to learn organic gardening is by hands-on practice, get your hands dirty, experiment and learn!
What are some of the hurdles you faced when converting your garden into what it is today? What did you learn from it?
When I decided to build a food forest in an urban backyard, I had to work out how this could be done, as it had never been done before as far as my research indicated. The solution was to combine Permaculture food forest design with the technique of backyard orchard culture which uses summer pruning and close plantings of trees to limit the size of full size trees to an easily manageable scale, this was pioneering work, which is why my garden has achieved the acclaim and recognition that it has. If I have learned anything from the process, it to never be afraid to experiment, and to never accept limiting ideas that something can’t be done simply because it hasn’t been done before.
Was there anything that exceeded your expectations when developing your garden?
I was truly surprised at how well a food forest which is a living ecosystem performed over a conventional garden. I never expected that the natural systems of pest and weed control that exist in nature would spring into life when I designed a garden which emulates a natural temperate forest system. Neither did I expect that I could produce so much food for barely any effort. It really opened my eyes to how much better nature has refined the process of growing plants over the last 470 million years, and how futile and pathetic humanity’s attempts to reinvent the wheel and arrogantly think we can improve on nature are.
Have you got any future plans for your garden?
I will keep experimenting and pushing the boundaries as long as I am living here. My current area of investigation is gardening for climate change, so I’m experimenting with food plants from other cultures that can tolerate extreme conditions, as well as subtropicals that can grow in hotter climatic conditions. Better to have done the work testing what food plants will grow in a changing climate to pre-empt the inevitable changes rather than passively wait and then ask questions after the fact.
Ideally, I’d like to build something on a larger scale elsewhere, only time will tell…
What are your top 5 pest control plants? What makes them unique?
Yarrow – attracts beneficial predatory insects, is a nectar source for them when they run out of pests to eat, it also increases the essential oil concentration in aromatic herbs, which mask the scent of plants that pests use to locate them, and it’s a great compost starter too!
Wormwood – planted upwind of your garden masks the scent of your plants from pests. Possums aren’t fond of this plant either.
Nasturtiums – exude mustard oils which repel codling moth from apple trees when grown beneath them, and function as a decoy crop which attracts aphids to it and away from your other plants.
Daisies – pyrethrum daisies, chamomile, feverfew, tansy and even the ornamental daisies provide a nectar source for beneficial predatory insects such as ladybirds, lacewings, hoverflies, plant these and the good bugs will come.
Lemon-scented pelargoniums – these fragrant plants release insect-repellent scent when brushed against or when moved around by the wind. These include lemon and citronella-scented varieties. They are also great mosquito repellent plants.
What are your top 5 sensory plants? What makes them unique?
Well, that’s an almost impossible question to answer, as when I design or build a multisensory garden, I aim to appeal to all senses and create a garden brimming with colours, scents, textures and shapes, designed with the purpose to engage as many of our senses as possible.
Flowers and coloured foliage can supply a kaleidoscope of colours to feast our eyes on. Herbs also have interesting flowers, but their main feature is their scent! Tactile plants appeal to our sense of touch. Smooth, soft, silky leaves almost compel us to touch them! Springy groundcovers and succulent leaves add tactile interest to a garden, as do a few spiky plants. Sound is an also important element, and the rustling of leaves and grasses can be quite soothing, as can be the flow of water from a fountain or water feature in a water garden. Then, there’s the one sense which people think of first in productive garden – taste! There is an endless amount of tastes and flavour available to sample through so many edible plants, fruits, and berries. The very thing that makes them special is that each and every plant is unique and provides us with its own sensory experience when we interact with it, that, to me, is the beauty of nature up close. When we surround ourselves with nature, we are soothed, calmed and relaxed, nature works as a combination of elements much like the individual notes in a musical piece, they come together in an incomparable harmony.
If you visit Melbourne be sure to book a time to see Angelo’s garden, usually open to the general public throughout the warmer seasons. All upcoming events and loads of educational Permaculture resources are available at www.deepgreenpermaculture.com
To quote the Permaculturist Geoff Lawton
– “All the world’s problems can be solved in a garden”
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13. WebMD Feature – Gardening for Health, http://www.webmd.com/healthy-aging/features/gardening-health
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