Moving house is stressful. Although I bought my current property three years, the process still sends a shiver down my spine. The seller put me through hell and, when I finally got the keys, there were more unpleasant surprises in store.

As far as I can tell, she left with just the clothes on her back. It took me a month to dispose of her discarded belongings. When it came to the garden, there was more detritus to sift through and many more trips to the local dump.

I decided to keep one thing: a Buddha statue. I know very little about Buddhism but there was something about the weather-worn stone figure that appealed to me. Further investigation revealed that Buddha statues are regarded as symbols of enlightenment, contentment and happiness. After what I’d been through, I needed a bit of inner peace.

But that’s what gardens are good at, isn’t it? Providing us with a haven from the world, a relaxing space where we can escape from the worries of everyday life. Numerous studies have shown that just looking at green spaces helps us to unwind and has positive outcomes for mental health. I use a lot of green in my interiors for that reason – it’s a calming colour both inside and out.

There’s also research which suggests that a specific soil bacteria triggers the release of serotonin in our brain, a natural anti-depressant. Yet another reason to get close to nature and get planting. I rarely wear gardening gloves, preferring to feel the earth beneath my fingers. I relish the sensation of cool soil in my hands while listening to birdsong and the rustle of bamboo leaves. And, if it’s sunny (I live in hope), there’s the added bonus of vitamin D.

Then there’s the joy of finding a plant in an unexpected place. As Jeff Goldblum said in the film Jurassic Park, “life finds a way”. Just this week I came across two tiny versions of the Angel Wings perennial, a plant I thought I’d lost two years ago when incessant wet weather saw off some of my most treasured species. Imagine my smile when I spotted the silvery leaves, velvet to the touch. Well done, life.

I’ve also worked hard to set up plenty of seating, in sun and shade. The key to a cool and calm garden is somewhere to sit and enjoy it, particularly if different aspects are afforded by different seats. In truth, I’ve probably gone overboard here. I’m a big fan of sitting down and my garden is testament to that. From a cast iron butterfly bench at the top of the slope and a bench on the patio, to a recliner in the small courtyard and a bistro set made for two, visitors to my plot aren’t short of a seat. The cats are also appreciative of a sunny corner with a couple of cushions for added comfort.

But the main thing is this: your garden must make you happy. For some, that’s a traditional Zen garden – a minimalist dry landscape with lots of hard landscaping. For others, it’s an enclosed area chock-full of pots and rampant climbers.

Gardens can also be somewhere to remember lost loved ones, and not just friends and relatives. One of my favourite spots is a simple memorial for my cats. I really loved those little guys, and it’s a bittersweet pleasure to sit in silence, surrounded by nature, and reflect on how much they would have enjoyed my new garden.

Words and images by Helen Nugent, Editor of Northern Soul  


This article first appeared in Catena