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Health: Doctor Horticulture will see you now

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The warmer days of summer are a great reason to throw open the back door and head out into the garden.

The mixture of damp soil and sunshine has triggered accelerated growth, which means that even the most modest patch has quickly turned to jungle.

If the time has come to tame the grass, dig weeds from the borders and stop climbers from strangling their hosts, then you can do so in the knowledge it won’t be just your plot that benefits… you will as well.

Countless studies have now shown that gardening is good for our health. Almost every week a new report appears to cite gardening as a positive force, capable of reducing stress levels, building strength and suppleness and cutting the risk of conditions such as dementia.

It turns out that the combination of regular, moderate exercise and an absorbing pastime is a powerful medicine. Add in a dash of sunshine and fresh air, the benefits of eating vegetables you’ve had the satisfaction of growing yourself and the opportunities for a chat with your neighbour over the garden fence and you have the recipe for a long and satisfying life.

And now scientists have discovered that Mycobacterium vaccae – the microbes that live in the soil – act like Prozac, stimulating serotonin in the brain, it turns out that getting your hands dirty could be hugely beneficial.

I’m a great believer in the healing powers of gardening. My friend Dianne, diagnosed with inoperable cancer and given three months to live, told her doctors she couldn’t possibly pop her clogs because she had just taken on a new garden, and went on to spend the next 13 years planting trees, setting out hedges and growing vegetables.

In Sardinia and Okinawa, both designated “blue zones” – places with a much higher than average number of centenarians, and where people stay active into their 90s and beyond – gardening is a way of life.

And, increasingly in Scotland, gardening is being used as a form of therapy to help people manage all kinds of health conditions.

Six years ago Ninewells Community Garden was established in the grounds of Ninewells Hospital in Dundee on the advice of occupational therapists and physiotherapists who wanted to provide outdoor space for rehabilitation of patients.

Today the garden is an essential part of the hospital and the whole community, with dozens of groups taking part in gardening activities on a weekly basis.

“It is a busy place,” says garden facilitator, Sarah Griffiths.

From teenagers with autism, amputees working to regain their sense of balance, primary school pupils being taught about growing and healthy eating, patients from the nearby psychiatric unit, groups from the Maggie’s Centre, which also sits in the hospital grounds, and volunteers from the local community, the garden is in constant use. It covers an acre and has flower borders, vegetable beds, a herb garden, a polytunnel and beehives and, at its heart, the award-winning Leaf Room – a remarkable garden pavilion from where patients can enjoy the garden and surrounding woodland.

Now there are plans to create an outdoor kitchen, where everyone who uses the garden can cook and eat together.

“A lot of our volunteers say that coming to the garden gives them a sense of purpose,” says Sarah. In Okinawa they call this “ikigai” – a reason for living. Something similar is happening in the Borders where mental health nurse Jan Moffat has established Space to Grow in an acre of gardens within the grounds of the Huntlyburn acute mental health ward of Borders General Hospital in Melrose.

“I’m a passionate gardener and I wanted to create somewhere for patients to get out of doors,” says Jan.

The project was given a recent boost with £30,000 from the People’s Postcode Lottery and local businesses, which has been used for essential landscaping. The garden has become a focus for many patients and Jan says: “It gives people structure to their day. It gives them a sense of purpose. And it has promoted friendships between patients of different ages, it has shown them they are kindred spirits.

“Gardener’s World presenter Carol Klein came to visit us recently and that gave everyone a huge boost.”

Jan, who now divides her time between Huntlyburn and the Gala Resource Centre, where she has also initiated gardening therapy, is hopeful that local GPs will start using the garden for social prescribing, where they recommend structured activity as an alternative to pills.

Thanks to the wonderful Horatio’s Garden now surrounding the wards at the Queen Elizabeth Spinal Unit in Glasgow, patients can take part in gardening activities even from their hospital beds, this connection with growing things is proving to be an effective form of therapy.

Projects like these are taking place all over the country. But the desire to garden is also being played out on allotment sites, in back gardens, in school playgrounds, on balconies and by the flat dwellers who are now surrounding themselves with greenery.

Gardens, it turns out, are one of life’s essentials. But, then, we’ve always known this, from when the world’s first cultivated places began to emerge in the fertile lands between the Tigris and the Euphrates.

These were beautiful spaces, cooled by fountains and pools of water and lined with fig and pomegranate trees, and when pressed to come up with a name, the ancient Persians chose the word “Paradise” to describe what they had created.

Today we would still agree.