Greener gardens promote healthier residents

New research reveals that filling a bare front garden with a handful of plants has the same stress-reducing impact as attending 8 mindfulness sessions

Researchers have found that a greener front garden can make you feel happier, more relaxed and closer to nature. The four-year scientific research project, a collaboration between the RHS and the universities of Sheffield, Westminster and Virginia, examined the effect on participating households of adding ornamental plants to previously bare front gardens in economically deprived streets of Salford in Greater Manchester.

Each of the 42 residents received one tree (juniper or snowy mespilus), one shrub (azalea), one climber (clematis), sub-shrubs (including lavender and rosemary), spring bulbs (daffodils, crocuses, snowdrops), and bedding plants (petunia, viola) to fill two containers. A second group of residents, a control group, received the same plants one year later.

By measuring the residents’ concentrations of cortisol hormone before and after the plants were added, the research team were able to see if the greenery had any impact on stress levels. Cortisol levels change across the day. In healthy daily patterns levels of cortisol peak in the early morning shortly after waking and drop to their lowest concentration at night. Steep daily declines of cortisol indicate a person has effective regulation of their biological and hormonal mechanisms – a likely consequence of reduced stress.
Before the experiment 24% of residents had healthy cortisol patterns. Over the course of the year following the plantings, this increased to 53% of residents. Additionally residents’ perceived stress levels decreased by 6% once the plants had been introduced. More than half (52%) of residents said their front garden contributed to them feeling happier; 40% said it helped them to feel more relaxed and a quarter said it helped them feel closer to nature.
 Dr Lauriane Suyin Chalmin-Pui, who conducted the experiment as part of her PhD research and who is now an RHS Wellbeing Fellow, said: “We now have further evidence of the vital need to incorporate plants into our front gardens and domestic spaces. The stress reduction data is startling, in that there was such a significant response with a relatively small number of plants. Now we know that access to a tiny patch of nature has beneficial effects for our health.

Greening up our communitities

“Re-greening our neighbourhoods is really important. This data supplements other studies that show garden plants help mitigate against flooding, encourage biodiversity, reduce air pollution, and improve our health and wellbeing. We must reverse the trend to pave over our front gardens because it is entirely possible to combine attractive, beneficial plantings with car parking space.
“Since I started this research, it’s been fascinating to see how adding plants to front gardens had a transformative effect on residents’ lives. Those suffering from loneliness and other mental health issues found it especially uplifting and motivational.
Professor Alistair Griffiths RHS Director of Science and Collections added: “With so many millions more people gardening after discovering a passion to grow during lockdown, the RHS hopes this research inspires more people to plant a few plants, whether in containers and window boxes or hedges and trees in borders in their street-side outside spaces.

“When we started this research four years ago the world was a very different place. Today life is even more stressful for so many, meaning the results of this experiment are more important than ever. This research highlights the essential role of private gardens and the horticulture and landscape industry in delivering natural capital that improves the health of our nation. Together we should all try to make a positive difference one plant at a time.” 
Dr Ross Cameron  from the University of Sheffield added: “This is an instrumental piece of research in that it ties in the very positive emotions people have with plants and gardens, with physiological health measures. It strengthens the evidence that gardening and ready access to green space are vital components in relieving stress and promoting positive mental health in our urban communities.”

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The Royal Horticultural Society is the UK’s leading gardening charity. We aim to enrich everyone’s life through plants, and make the UK a greener and more beautiful place.