What’s not to like about gardening? It’s a great way to get outdoors, away from everyday routines, and to exercise your creativity. It’s good for your health, whatever your age, and gardeners tend to be happier on average. But gardening is more than just a relaxing hobby. Psychology research suggests that tending to a garden can have an almost magical effect, even changing the passage of time.
I love gardening – I make or remake a garden every time I move house, bringing plants from one place to another while also creating things anew. Gardening is part of who I am. My family are used to me disappearing into the garden at weekends. Once I’m there, time stands still; I can be out there from morning to night without noticing the hours passing.
I’m not alone. Many gardeners past and present have described the same experiences of switching off from their busy lives or troubles when they’re in the garden or yard. The garden and gardening are a retreat, an escape from daily pressures. People have told me that their garden becomes a ‘salvation’ and they would be bereft without it.
Switching off is not solely about not thinking – it is about the perception of time itself.
Gardeners usually say that time in the garden is shorter than it actually is; that planned hour simply slips away. The beginning and end of gardening depends on the tasks that day, or physical limitations such as darkness falling. In the process, time passes from objective clock time to subjective or nature’s time. Tasks such as weeding or checking on progress are neverending; mowing the grass is episodic – it happens regularly, but each time the task is finite. Natural time relies on sunrise and sunset, and seasons, determined by something beyond ourselves. It is measured by the time it takes for seeds to germinate and become carrots or cornflowers, or the arrival of favourite birds. Working with nature’s time disconnects me and other gardeners from externally imposed rhythms of activity punctuated by events such as commuting, meetings or meals.
Time standing still is integral to the psychological phenomenon called ‘flow’. Flow is a highly focused mental state associated with happiness, whereby people get carried along and become so absorbed in an activity that they don’t notice anything else, including the passage of time. This description matches my experience in the garden. Flow puts the process of active engagement centre-stage, along with a blurring of the boundary between self and activity. The concept of flow might explain the attraction of the gardening experience, but it doesn’t tell us what draws people out into the garden in the first place, nor why so many end up hooked.
Perhaps the garden itself has a role to play: tempting us out to see what might have happened in our absence and what needs doing next. This makes the garden intriguing and fascinating, switching our mindset on to the natural environment. In fact, ‘fascination’ is one aspect of attention restoration theory (ART), developed by the US environmental psychologists Rachel Kaplan and Stephen Kaplan, and introduced in their book The Experience of Nature (1989). ART describes how humans seem to be predisposed to engage with the natural world, and to find it relaxing or restorative. ART is about what nature does for us, and thus speaks to this notion of getting hooked. Central to the theory is the idea that engaging with nature helps us recover from feeling mentally depleted or overloaded.
Nature captures our attention. Bees buzzing on lavender, rustling leaves, passing clouds or buds unfurling into flowers can ‘fascinate’ us. They draw our attention away from our own concerns into a world of nature in the garden. If nature is intrinsically interesting, the more that people work with it, the more they become drawn in, and the less they are distracted by other issues. In turn, they become more satisfied by gardening. The idea of satisfaction or happiness seems to bring us back to flow. However, in addition to ‘fascination’, the restoration process described by ART requires ‘being away’, ‘extent’ and ‘compatibility’. These elements combined help to explain how gardeners get completely wrapped up in the garden, and why their sense of time might shift in the process.
Physically escaping from inside to outside, being somewhere peaceful away from home or the office, where I can feel the sun or wind on my back, is relaxing in itself. This is a vital aspect of gardening for me, and reflects the ‘being away’ element of ART. Relaxation means that levels of stress hormones are reduced, so the restorative effect is as much physiological as psychological. Even being away for extremely short periods is restorative. Whatever their size, gardens take you into a totally different world. However, to have an even more powerful psychological benefit, ART says that places should also have ‘extent’.
Extent is the idea that gardens are connected physically and virtually to other parts of the gardener’s life, their past, present and future. Extent configures the garden as a repository for memories and emotions, a place where different times intersect. For instance, I always plant Alchemilla mollis or lady’s mantle in my garden, not only because I am fascinated by the way its leaves hold raindrops, but also because it reminds me of my grandparents. When I see A mollis, I hear my grandfather saying its name and remember how he always found it funny. Family and personal history often pop up in people’s conversations about their gardens or allotments. Memories can be manifested by physical acts of gardening, too. A man I interviewed about his allotment realised that, when he was digging, he was making the same movements as when he was a teenager working in a foundry, and it took him back immediately to his younger self.
This man’s embodied memory of the past also demonstrates what ART calls ‘compatibility’. For him, being physically active was psychologically and emotionally meaningful, and gardening is compatible with who he was and what he can do in the present. Compatibility is about having the time and ability to accomplish things that are personally relevant. Growing fresh food is compatible with your role as a provider for the family, while nurturing chrysanthemums to a perfect bloom could be compatible with my neighbour’s desire to win a prize.
Gardening is a relaxing and rewarding hobby. It provides an opportunity to escape and reflect away from our daily routines, and to relish the intensity of fascination. But it is more than that. The psychological power of gardening derives from the garden’s reach beyond the here and now. My contention is that different and complex forms of time are continuously interacting through the garden and the gardener. Past, present and future collide in a flowerbed, enticing the gardener to lose themselves in the pleasure of ‘flow’. Let someone else worry about lunch.
Harriet Gross is professor of psychology, as well as acting pro vice chancellor and head of the College of Arts, at the University of Lincoln in the UK. Her latest book is The Psychology of Gardening (2018).
Edited by Christian Jarrett
This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.