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Monday, 3 August 2015

Why Garden?

By Helen Roberts

Monty Don’s visit in July to the University of Bristol Botanic Garden did not disappoint. He delivered two lectures entitled ‘Why Garden’, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, with lunch and a tour of the garden in between. The subject of why to garden is vast and could be approached from a multitude of angles . However, Monty used his personal experiences in working his garden of Longmeadow to discuss how gardening can bring both restoration of the mind and body to people, as well as a reconnection to the landscape.
                                                      
Monty first began gardening because of his mother, but back then it was a chore to be got through, simply a means to an end. She would frequently use the phrase, "…and what are you doing this afternoon?", which meant "you had better get on with the gardening!" By the age of 17, Monty had a rudimentary knowledge of gardening and was looking after a half-acre vegetable garden.

His first realisation that gardening was what he wanted to do was when he was back home from school and he was sowing carrots in the garden. He described to the audience that in that moment he felt singular happiness. He felt deeply rested and contented.

Connecting to nature 

I could relate to Monty's words as I feel the same whenever I am in my garden. I feel peaceful and relaxed even if what I am doing could be physically exerting, like digging. I sense a reconnection with the garden and the landscape around me (farming is in my blood so I guess that connection is somehow re-established when I garden).

When I return home from a trip away, those first glimpses from the Mendips across Somerset stir a deep sense of belonging to this landscape.  Hardy’s description of the Vale of Blackmoor in Tess of the D’urbervilles (although relating to country south of where I live) perfectly describes to me the colours and textures of where I live at the foot of the Mendips, the same vivid blue and soft haze with its intricate network of fields. His description describes to me the landscape of home and attachment.

"..the fields are mere paddocks, so reduced that from this height their hedgerows appear a network of dark green threads overspreading the paler green of the grass. The atmosphere beneath is languorous, and is so tinged with azure that what artists call the middle distance partakes also of that hue, while the horizon beyond is of the deepest ultramarine."

Panorama of the mendips taken from Durston Drove above Wells.
Photo credit Stewart Black, [via Flickr Creative Commons 2.0]

In today’s society, people are losing their connections to nature and to the non-urban landscape - particularly children. The NationalTrust produced a report on the topic of Nature Deficit Disorder in children and how to address it. Richard Louv also discusses this in great detail in his book, Last Child in the Woods.

There is a real and absolute need to reconnect with our natural world - not only to save it, but to save ourselves. Studies published in 2014, in the journal Environment and Behaviour, showed that our emotional connections with nature influence choices of living sustainably, but also showed there was a connection between exposure to nature and our own happiness.

Finding refuge in the garden - physically and mentally

For Monty, gardening has always been a reconnection to the landscape, to restore balance and order in his (by his own admission) sometimes disordered and chaotic mind. He shared with the audience that after suffering from depression in the 1980s, returning to the garden brought about his recovery and the restoration of his mind. His garden was his refuge.

"In this age of anxiety gardens are a refuge," Monty explained, "a safe haven from the stresses of everyday life. A garden never lies; you can trust it and it will respond to you. They are ever present and throughout the course of the seasons it will always return, offering both familiarity and stability."

Not everyone has their own personal garden. The University of Bristol Botanic Garden offers a place for people to reconnect with the natural world and to learn about local plants as well as more exotic ones. It is a plant-packed green sanctuary in the heart of Bristol. The gardens themselves open our minds to the huge diversity and importance of plants. And they are in a constant state of flux, changing over time, as gardens and landscapes tend to do.

Monty spoke about learning from other gardens to gain ideas and inspiration and soak up knowledge from those who work there. I frequently explore different gardens and I take my children with me. They are not bored by plants and gardens. They run around and explore. They discover and forage. They are connecting to the plants and animals - whether it's watching water boatmen in a pond or looking at the rocks and crevices in a wall.

I was visiting a garden the other day, and I was watching my 4-year old as he walked along a flower border gently touching and feeling different plants, such as the beautiful flowers of the paper-thin Papaver rhoeas and the fluffy fox-like tails of Hordeum jubatum. I bought seed after that visit because I wanted to recreate that sense for my children in my own garden.

Monty said, "when you garden you are building the story of your life." The Botanic Garden is doing just that. It is evolving and as it changes the imprints of those who have been involved are left behind. Creating a rich and dynamic place to explore, learn and reconnect with the natural world.