Why gardening is great for body and mind- and top tips for gardening with disabilities

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By Hannah Stephenson

Garden designer Mark Lane's life changed course 15 years ago, when a car
crash left him needing to use a wheelchair.

He had to come to terms with his disability, tackle severe depression
and overcome chronic pain and fatigue. Lane had previously had
high-flying roles in publishing, but decided to change careers - and his
passion for plants and the outdoors led him to study garden and
landscape design, based at home.

Today, he runs his own garden design and landscape practice, has a
thriving career as a TV gardening presenter, is an ambassador for
various disability charities with a slant on gardening, and is now
supporting Gardens & Health Week.

"As a garden designer, and as someone who uses a wheelchair all the
time, I know first-hand how gardening has improved my physical health
and my mental wellbeing," says Lane. "I am a strong advocate for the
importance that gardening plays on our busy everyday lives and
wellbeing."

So how can more of us tune into the benefits of horticulture? Ahead of
Gardens & Health Week (18-24 August), Lane reveals some of the wellbeing
benefits of gardening, along with some top tips for getting started for
those living with disabilities or illness...

Benefits for the mind and body

It's great for mindfulness

"When in a garden or gardening, we are encouraged to live in the moment,
be more mindful of ourselves and our surroundings. Our breathing slows
down (unless we are digging), our shoulders drop, and in no time at all
the activity of gardening has been used as a stress reliever and stress
releaser," says Lane.

Gardening helps you keep fit

"Gardening is a great way to keep fit, using muscles in our hands, arms,
back, stomach and legs, without even knowing that we are doing it -
better than going to the gym, in my opinion," Lane adds.

And keeps your brain healthy too

"From the first moment of thinking about what to do in the garden,
whether it be passive (sitting and enjoying) or active (physically
gardening), we are improving our brain health. I have noticed how my own
cognitive recall has improved since gardening and doing garden design,"
says Lane.

Neurons in the brain are sparked, whatever you're doing garden-wise,
whether choosing seeds, border planning or actively planting. Relax your
mind by creating a seating area, preferably in the shade, listening to
birdsong.

You can grow your own healing herb garden

Lane has his own herb garden area, aware of their natural healing
powers. "Peppermint is great for helping with bloating and indigestion,
dandelion is packed with vitamins and minerals and helps cleanse the
liver, and rosemary or sage contain flavonoids that help prevent cancer
and reduce the risk of heart attacks and strokes," he says.

Even contact with soil could be a health-booster

"There's a harmless bacteria, Mycobacterium vaccae, normally found in
dirt, which stimulates the immune system and has also been found to
boost the production of serotonin, the feel-good brain chemical," says
Lane. "Low levels of serotonin are associated with depression, so
physical contact with soil may [help] elevate our mood."

Top tips for gardeners with disabilities:

Use the right tools and kit for the job

Using the right tools for the job will make gardening more manageable
and comfortable, Lane stresses. Grabbers can be used to hold plants.
Long-handled tools called 'reacher grabbers', with a claw at one end,
are perfect for picking things up, and reaching for plants that need
deadheading or pruning.

Try out long-handled tools in the shop before you buy, he suggests.
They're ideal for people who can't bend down easily, or for those in
wheelchairs. You may want to splash out on tools with interchangeable
heads to save time and space.

Also, go for lightweight tools if you can - there are some good
aluminium ones on the market, but be aware that some less heavy tools
may not last as long as others. And consider the handles: Some are more
ergonomic than others, with moulded handles which are more comfortable
to use.

Portable tables of differing heights are perfect for helping
wheelchair-users and others with physical disabilities to plant and sow.
Look out for adjustable camping tables with non-slip surfaces, which you
can fold and put away afterwards. Invest in a scoop for getting compost
and gravel out of bags and buy smaller bags of compost for ease of
handling.

If you haven't any raised beds which are the right height for you to
plant, consider planting in pots, using tables around you to rest the
pot on while you are doing it. And keep hedges at a height where you can
easily trim them.

Keep a wide path

"For wheelchair-users, the best width for a domestic path is 120cm. This
allows space either side to control the chair. For more ambulant people,
a width of 120cm to 140cm is ideal," Lane adds.

"It also means that for people with, for example, chronic arthritis, who
may need the support of someone's arm; this can be achieved because the
path is wide enough for two people to walk side-by-side. And avoid
gravel, which feels unstable underfoot."

Gardens & Health Week runs from August 18-24. For more information, see
ngs.org.uk/gardens-and-health

Catherine Devane