by Wendy Mills, Certified Master Gardener
A growing body of research is proving what we know intuitively: Nature is good for us—physically, mentally, and cognitively. When we spend time in nature—whether in a national park or a backyard garden—we feel better. We breathe easier and deeper, our heart rate slows, and our blood pressure drops. Also, problems feel more manageable and solutions that eluded us may appear effortlessly, coaxed into awareness by birdsong, the crunch of leaves underfoot, or the hint of pine in the breeze.
Nature tickles our senses—and our brains—in complex ways that we are only beginning to understand. A number of large-scale, scientific studies have documented that people in hospitals heal faster, students perform better on tests, and residents of public housing feel a greater sense of community and security when they have views of trees and greenspace.
How much exposure to nature is enough? A recent Finnish study published in the Journal of Environment Psychology concluded that just 15 to 45 minutes in a city park, even one with pavement, crowds and some street noise were enough to improve mood, vitality and feelings of restoration. The study recommended spending at least five hours per month in nature and more time to achieve deeper and longer lasting benefits.
As we find ways to incorporate more nature into our busy lives, consider spending some time in the Glencarlyn Library Community Garden. A few easy practices can enhance your overall experience and increase the restorative benefits of your visits.
As you walk under the garden gate, look at the sky, take a few deep breaths and relax your shoulders. Feel your mind and body become calmer.
Delight in the colors, shapes and textures of individual plants, and the harmony created by different plant groupings with their many layers. Whatever the season, there is always something special to see. In spring, I look for the toadshade (Trillium sessile) in our shade garden, with its light and dark green mottled leaves and three maroon petals. In summer, on the library’s north side, I wait for the red buckeye tree (Aesculus pavia) to produce its shiny, dark brown, nut-like seeds, which are considered good luck. In fall, near the gazebo, the native Hearts-a-Bustin’ (Euonymus americanus) dazzles with its bright pink, spiny fruit capsules which split to reveal orange-colored seeds; and near the entrance to the library, the twisted and spiraling branches of Harry Lauder’s walking stick (Corylus avellana ‘Contorta‘) add drama to the winter garden.
Smell the flowers and rub the leaves of our many culinary and fragrant herbs between your fingers, breathing in the essential oils from rosemary, known for improving concentration and memory; lavender and peppermint for their calming effects; and the citrus aroma of lemon verbena, said to brighten mood.
Relax in the gazebo or on the bench under the mature green ash tree (Fraxinus pennsylvanica). See if you can identify the plaintive call of the Mourning Dove; the two-parted whistle and slow trill of the Northern Cardinal; the Northern Mockingbird, whose song is a long series of phrases, including whistles, sharp rasps, and trills, that are repeated several times; or the twitter and warble of the American Goldfinch. Over thousands of years, people have come to associate birdsong with a sense of security and well-being.
Americans on average spend more than 90 percent of their life indoors, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Clearly, nature-deficit disorder, a term coined by Richard Louv in his landmark book Last Child in the Woods (2005), applies to all people, not just children. If we continue on this path, we risk forgetting how good nature makes us feel and losing an essential part of our evolutionary makeup as human beings. This spring, let’s spend more time outdoors, exploring the gardens, woods and greenspaces that make our community such a special place to live. For more information on this subject, I recommend Florence Williams’ new book: The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative (2017).