Ahh January – here you are again. My favorite month – not! Horrible weather, not enough daylight, no outside gardening, and all those infernal good intentions. Not that there is anything wrong with facing the new year with optimism, fortitude, and enthusiasm; it’s just that feeling come mid-February when we have maybe not kept on track, that is the problem. 

While winning the lottery or looking like a Sports Illustrated cover girl may be some people’s heart’s desire for this year, it seems what most of us really want is just to be healthier, happier, less stressed, and able to enjoy a sense of achievement. Well hold on to your hats because I might just have the answer to all those goals for the year. 

The solution:

Cue the eye rolling from my children as I launch into my all-time favorite topic: the benefits of gardening. Forget the beautiful flowers, delicious vegetables, and pretty views, they are all just the add-on benefits of gardening. The true rewards are in the mind, body, and soul of a gardener. Want to get fit? Check. Want to reduce stress and anxiety? Check. Want to find connections and a community? Check. Want to learn something new, be challenged, and strengthen your resilience? Check. Want to be a happier person? Then get out and garden in 2024, and it will be check, check, and check.

If we have one thing – and one thing only – to thank the COVID pandemic for, it is the opportunity it gave so many to discover the joys of gardening. Time at home, time to spare, and if you were lucky enough, a patch of green space to play with.  Seed sales went through the roof, garden shop aisles were bare, and a whole new generation got in on the centuries-old secret that gardens provide sanctuary and seclusion from the chaos of the world. Ever since the Roman Empire, Persian pleasure gardens, Islamic paradise gardens, Japanese rock gardens, and Chinese courtyard gardens have long shown us the importance and value of our green spaces.

Benefit boxes

Four years on, that initial enthusiasm may have waned for some. (Gardening can be harder than it looks – especially if you go out of the gate too fast.) But for others the gardening bug was well and truly caught. And with commiserations to all those newly minted garden widows, widowers, and orphans out there, once caught, it’s usually a life-long love. 

Why? Because unlike many other pastimes and hobbies, gardening ticks not just one of the three benefit boxes – physical, mental, and emotional (and yes, I believe there is a difference between those last two) – but all three. At once. (You think your Peloton subscription can really do all that?)

Box #1

Gardening offers the opportunity for a full-body, functional fitness workout with cardio, strength, and flexibility all thrown in. I am never fitter than at the beginning of December after weeks of heaving crates of dahlia tubers, bags of potting soil, and pots in and out of my barn; walking miles behind a mower; and squatting up and down planting bulbs. You learn very quickly when gardening with so much bending and lifting that if you don’t engage your core, your back is going to hate you in no time. Plus, unlike the gym, you can enjoy some great multi-tasking. Want amazing soil to grow your plants in and Michelle Obama-ripped biceps – shovel and spread a few yards of compost!  

Box #2

Next box – and for many this is the kicker that keeps them hooked, is the mental health benefit of gardening. We all know getting outside, getting some exercise, and getting fresh air can be the answer to many of our short-term woes. Add some gardening into that formula, and you’re onto a real winner. Numerous studies have shown that gardening reduces stress; lowers blood pressure; and promotes feelings of accomplishment, competence, and wellbeing. 

Furthermore, for those seeking greater solace, gardens and horticultural therapy are now being seen as a means to help with all manner of mental health conditions from anxiety to PTSD, loneliness, and grief. I became completely hooked while suffering from crippling post-natal depression after our first child was born. Turning our half-acre plot of land on Shelter Island into a garden became my lifeline. 

Much has been written about the psychological and physiological reasons for this, none of which I would dispute. But from my personal experience, I would add something less scientific. And that would be hope. Show me a greater act of hope than planting a tiny spring bulb as the dark winter closes in and waiting for it to burst to life months later. It requires the trust and knowledge that better times and good times will come again – the epitome of ‘this too shall pass.’ And that faith can be as poignant for those lucky enough just to have a dislike of winter as it is for those really struggling. 

For those of us stuck with a mindset of negative and damaging thoughts or feeling unable to move on, this hope can be exceptionally powerful. The very crux of gardening is we don’t get to dictate what happens. Mother Nature does, and like it or not, the seasons will keep changing, and we have to go with them. It’s our reaction to these changes – as with all life events – that dictates how we feel. When you experience the change of seasons with your garden, perhaps it’s also possible to believe that the same might be true with the rest of life? That however bleak it may be now, good times will come around again? And, while I love the headless-chicken-busy, warm May days, I have learned that actually I need a few miserable February weeks to have time to reflect, reorganize, and plan. We need the down days to be able to appreciate and make the golden ones all the more glorious.

Mother Nature is also the queen of second chances. Killed a tray of seedlings? Sow another. Forgot to pinch out your cosmos, blight got your tomatoes, dogs ate the kale? There is always next year. Short of accidentally chopping down a tree, the joy of gardening is that you can always try again. The secret to success is to not repeat the same mistakes. Add in some consistency, accountability, and optimism – all habits that serve us well in our lives – and you will be well rewarded.

Box #3

Some might argue my third box is really part of #2, but I feel it deserves a category all to itself. It concerns the even less tangible elements of gardening that serve us so well. The emotional connection to the ground, our histories, and our own roots. The love, the nurture, and the memories that gardens create and evoke. The sensory connection of sounds, sights, tastes, and scents of gardens past and present. As someone who grew up on a fourth-generation farm in England and who never imagined I’d come to the US on vacation, let alone live here (reluctantly at times) for 25 years, my garden fills many of the holes I might otherwise have from feeling displaced. Recreating, repeating, and reinterpreting what I knew there has given me literal roots in my new home here.

And finally – and here long-time readers can join my kids in rolling their eyes – because if I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a hundred times – there is no nicer, kinder, more generous community than gardeners. Start to garden, and you will find your people both online and in real life. Through the highs and lows, the wins and the fails, the fog of frustration, and even despair, you will instantly find your coach, your team, and your cheerleaders. I cannot recommend it highly enough. •

 Pom Shillingford is an obsessive gardener originally from England and now based in Salisbury, CT. She offers seasonal cut flowers through English Garden Grown. Find her on Instagram @english_garden_grown.