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Gardening nirvana

Keep it green: restrain your colour palette for a more tranquil feel.

As a gardener I passionately believe in the transformative power of green spaces and, as a scientist, I know that there is a growing body of evidence to suggest measurable benefits to mental and physical health. Understanding just three simple design principles can help you maximise your garden’s restorative potential, based on the concept of mindfulness. By wonderful coincidence, these same principles can give even the smallest spaces the illusion of being much larger, by keeping your interest sustained for longer. So let’s get started.

To many people, their dream garden might be a blaze of colour with rainbow hues spilling from every corner. However, by restraining your colour palette to the myriad of greens, gardens are immediately given a more tranquil feel. In these spaces, the elements vying for visual interest are on a more level playing field and the subtleties of texture, shape and form elevated to match that of colour. It means your eye wanders over the scheme slowly, and the more you look, the more you see – a slow forage, rather than a quick hit of horticultural “fast food”. This considered appreciation of the moment distracts us from dwelling on the past or being worried about the future, and may reduce anxiety.

Small wonder: a single bonsai tree can give you a few minutes a day of ‘tending time’.
 Small wonder: a single bonsai tree can give you a few minutes a day of ‘tending time’. Photograph: Dorling Kindersley/Alamy

Another design tip to encourage us to view gardens in a more leisurely way is to slow the rate we are able to physically move through them, by providing obstacles and barriers. Instead of wide, linear paths, which can be dashed along with your eyes facing straight ahead, narrow, winding paths force the viewer to move at a gentler pace. Further obstacles, like stepping stones (either through water or planting), as well as low branches, make us look around more carefully and, in so doing, appreciate the beauty of nature more fully.

Finally, and perhaps controversially, ditch the fixation with low-maintenance planting. In a hectic world it’s tempting to strip out outdoor “chores”, but to me the benefits of gardening are not so much in the end product, but in the process of doing it. By intentionally designing features that increase hands-on time, you are also increasing therapeutic time to consider the wonders of the natural world. But don’t go overboard. Even in a generally low-maintenance garden, you can have small spots that require more care. For example, a single bonsai plant indoors can easily give you 10 minutes a day of tending time, versus a low-work aspidistra. Sowing plants from seed, rather than buying them ready grown, not only saves you money but means you witness the miracle of life appearing as if by magic from brown earth. Preening a miniature dish garden is more work than installing a sculpture, but offers far more opportunities for focus, concentration and care.

As someone who experiences depression and anxiety, tending plants is the most accessible and simplest way to engage in mindfulness, and just a few minutes a day makes a huge difference to my life. And it just might to yours, too.