A recent report suggests microbes found in soil may have an antidepressant effect and as it’s National Gardening Week, and the country is still on lockdown – some are spending more time planting and pruning. John Hills asks if soil can make us feel good?

In these times of lockdown due to the Covid 19 pandemic, it is easy to feel trapped, almost imprisoned. Anyone who takes the government’s guidelines seriously will be spending at least 23 hours a day at home, possibly alone, possibly with the company of family, loved ones, and pets. 

Socialising, dining out and many hobbies are cancelled, and many sports fans are reduced to watching repeats of F1 races.

Of course, there are some who will be perfectly happy with this arrangement, but for many, this poses a real challenge, and for some is a real threat to their mental health.

So.

How about a bit of gardening?

It has been reported that microbes found in soil have an antidepressant effect similar to Prozac, but without the negative side effects.

While I can’t comment on the science behind this, or whether it is correct or not, I would argue that there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to support the claim that gardening is good for you. I have never thought of myself as a “gardener”. At home, that used to be something that I was happy to let my wife take the lead on, but over the years I have been called upon to assist in many projects, and, despite initial dread, have always thoroughly enjoyed myself digging ponds, planting trees, laying paving slabs, and trimming those damn conifers!  At the other end of the spectrum, my 80-year-old mum can’t spend a day without fiddling in her garden for several hours, and gets noticeably cranky if something prevents her from getting out there.  She is one of the lucky few who are thriving in the current circumstances!

It is with this uncertain background that I was presented the opportunity to take the lead on the renovation of the Johnson Wellbeing Garden at Christ Church. This wonderful area of the campus had seen a lot of work done a few years ago, with a pond being dug in the middle, and small allotment planters set up in one corner. Work on this has, of course, stopped for the time being, but my experiences there have meant that I now spend a little more time in our own, rather small, garden. We bought some compost just before the lockdown, but garden centres seem to be happy to deliver what you want.  We also have a neighbour who is selling off seedlings at a very reasonable price.

Did I mention that our garden is really small? Don’t let that stop you! We have planted pea seedlings in a makeshift window box, and they are thriving.

You don’t need to spend a fortune on pots either. The peas were germinated in a section of guttering with taped off ends. We are also sprouting Pak Choi in biodegradable crisp packets!  Two Farmers actually recommend this as a use for their packets after you have eaten their rather wonderful contents!

Perhaps microbes do have something to do with gardening making you feel good.  Maybe it is that a short break from the stress and strain of our current confinement, getting back to basics, and freeing the mind just does you good, both physically and mentally. I don’t know which is true, and I don’t particularly care. I just know that it works. Get out there and get your hands dirty – you might just discover a new hobby!

John Hills is Senior Technician in the School of Human and Life Sciences.