Gardening for Health

6 min read

Oct. 30, 2000 -- First thing every morning, Gene Gach checks the 50 or so pots of bromeliads that he keeps along one side of his house. Then he simply stands and enjoys the backyard of his modest Los Angeles home -- the wide, green lawn, the 25-foot stand of Chinese bamboo he grew from a single stalk, and many flowers and rose bushes. On most days a cluster of birds surrounds his bird feeder, along with a small rabbit, whom he is teaching to eat lettuce. Later, Gach will play an 18-hole round of golf, lunch with his wife, and then garden for up to two hours.

He loves gardening. "Days like this leave me with an incredible sense of peace and serenity," says Gach. "When I stand in my garden I can feel the seeds under the earth, everything growing, and I have a connection to all of life."

Gach, who retired seven years ago from a career as a press agent and fund raiser, may sound like an ex-hippie just turning 55, but he's not. He is 87 years old, shows no sign of quitting anytime soon, and just wrote his autobiography. "The doctor who gave me a recent cardiac stress test couldn't believe it," says Gach. "'You're twice my age,' he told me, 'and your blood pressure is lower on the treadmill than mine is sitting down.'"

Why is Gach so spry? While it's impossible to pin down with certainty the secret of his longevity and health, some doctors would say that his environment -- specifically his connection with nature -- plays a large part. Nature holds the key to health, believes Harvard naturalist and Pulitzer Prize winner Edward O. Wilson, who coined the term biophilia (love of living things). 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.

These restorative benefits of nature, some experts now believe, can lower blood pressure, boost immune function, and reduce stress. And to reap these benefits, you don't have to live in a mansion with a gardener. All that's required is a love of flowers and a willingness to plant a few herbs or even to hang a beautiful poster depicting nature on your wall.

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.

More recently, studies presented at the 1999 Culture, Health, and the Arts World Symposium in England also found beneficial effects of 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.

The abstract art, however, made patients feel sicker. The health outcomes of those viewing the abstract art was worse than if they saw no art at all. They were more anxious and initially took more pain killers than the control patients.

Yet other studies have found that looking at scenes of nature can produce a decline in systolic blood pressure in five minutes or less, even if the person is only looking at a poster of nature, Ulrich says. Looking at nature, he also has found, can aid recovery from stress as measured by changes in brain electrical activity, muscle tension, respiration, and shifts in emotional states, all of which may be linked to better immune function. That, in turn, can protect people from disease and help them recover if they are sick. According to Ulrich, it is even possible that humans are "hard-wired" through evolution to positively respond to certain environments -- most notably caring human faces, certain views of nature, and music in certain keys.

"It is clear," Ulrich says, "that the mind does matter."

One reason nature may be so successful at reducing stress is that it puts the mind in a state similar to meditation, 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. "When you are looking intensely at something, or you bend down to smell something, you bypass the [analytical] function of the mind." You naturally stop thinking, obsessing, 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.

There are other benefits to being in nature as well, including exercise, exposure to vitamin D from sunshine, and the capacity of light to counter seasonal depression. And for people in restricted environments or with chronic conditions, the payoffs may even be greater, says Richard Zeisel, president of Hearthstone Alzheimer Care in Lexington, Mass., a company that manages living-treatment residences for people with Alzheimer's disease. "You can either upset people and then give them drugs to relax them, or you can not upset them in the first place."

Hearthstone's approach, in which gardens are an integral part of the residences, dramatically decreases anxiety, agitation, aggression, and social withdrawal among patients, and thus the need for antipsychotic drugs. "It's a practical question: would we rather spend money on drugs, or would we rather spend money on flowers?" Zeisel says.

Even seniors whose environments do not include attractive views or actual gardens can get close to nature, says Teresa Hazan, a horticultural therapist at Legacy Health System in Portland, Ore., which provides therapy for patients at local hospitals.

She recommends that senior residences set up outdoor gardens, accessible to all. Three to five large clay pots are enough: one for favorite herbs, one for a shrub or tree, another for flowers or vegetables. A plant in anyone's room can also be healing, she says. When you become dependent on others and have less control over your life, says Hazan, it's very restorative to have something that's dependent on you.

A single amaryllis bulb drew Jo Clayton, a science fiction and fantasy writer and author of 35 novels, out of depression when she was struggling with bone cancer, Hazan says. "We spoke about the power of the amaryllis bulb," says Hazan, "and I compared it to the power in her." Clayton, who had never gone outdoors much, began spending time in nature, painting landscapes and resolving issues with family members before her death.

In O. Henry's short story "The Last Leaf," a young Greenwich Village artist is sustained through pneumonia by looking out her window at an ivy vine. The view is a painted one, though the heroine doesn't know this, and it gives her the strength to recover.

Gene Gach is convinced that his own involvement with nature has contributed to his health as well. "And my doctors have no other explanation. Being in nature is completely different from taxes and all the worries of modern life. You have a sense of health and regeneration, a completely innocent excitement about all the life that is growing around you, and you know you are part of it.

"As a matter of fact, my only health problem is that sometimes I have trouble falling asleep. But even here the flowers help. I just repeat them, alphabetically, from memory, and I'm asleep in no time."

Acacia, agapanthus, aloe, almond, amaryllis, anemone, antherium, apple.

"Try it! I guarantee it works."