How your garden can keep you fit

Getting outside and giving your garden a makeover could be the best therapy you need to make 2011 stress free. Emma Harrowing discovers how gardening can help improve your health and your home.

Gardening is a centuries-old hobby but still remains a popular activity in the UK with countless relaxation and health benefits.

In fact 30 minutes of gardening a day can aid recovery from strokes and heart disease, and results in fewer trips to the doctors, says a study published in the Environmental Health Journal.

A recent study by the Royal Horticultural Society also states that gardening boosts the happiness and development of children.

With this in mind, as you start your new year's resolution to get fitter in 2011 perhaps you should add gardening to your list of priorities.

It doesn't matter if you have got a courtyard garden, a few acres or just a little window pot, getting your hands dirty and being creative can do wonders for your health and wellbeing.

Pensthorpe Nature Reserve and Gardens is encouraging people to pick up their gardening tools in the new year and feel the benefits of the hobby.

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'Gardening is a great activity suited for all ages,' says Imogen Checketts, the head gardener at Pensthorpe. 'The different sights, sounds and scents of a garden can certainly lift your mood. After all green is the colour most associated with healing.

'For example, taking up an allotment following long term illness can provide a focus and a reason to get outdoors. I know people who have felt 'saved' by taking up gardening, whether it's planting bulbs, propagating plants or growing vegetables and flowers. Gardening is great for boosting your endorphins and is probably one of the best all round ways to exercise if you have a variety of gardening activities to do. It's an activity you can do as little or as much as you like and is a great social tool as you can join a community project and meet like-minded people.'

If you want to get green fingers this year there are many gardens worth a visit in our region that will give you some creative ideas for your own garden design. Pensthorpe has three very different gardens, the Wave Garden, designed by award-winning Julie Tollm focuses on woodland with spring and summer flowers and a wave of yew hedging.

The Millennium Garden is an acre of perennials and grasses designed by world class plants man Piet Oudolf. This garden provides a year-long tapestry of colour.

And finally the Wildlife Habitat Garden has been designed to show what you can do at home to create habitats that attract various species of wildlife. It was also the garden seen on BBC's Springwatch series.

There are other inspirational gardens too. From the secret city hideaway of the Plantation Garden just off Earlham Road, to the elegant courtly gardens at Blickling Hall, to our city parks which are home to colourful flowerbeds and landscaped gardens.

When you visit these gardens jot down the creative ideas that you like and create your own version in your own backyard. You can also get good advice from local garden centres such as Taverham nursery and garden centre where you can get advice on everything from planting to adding water features, or Godfrey's who can advise on how to make your garden into an area to relax.

Then get outside and create your vision.

Perhaps you want to create an elaborate water feature, landscape your garden, add a rockery or flowerbeds with varieties of plants that each flower at different times of the year so that your garden in always in full bloom.

Or maybe you would like to have a slice of the good life and grow your own fruit and vegetables.

You don't have to have a big garden or an allotment to grow your own food. Tomatoes, chilli and peppers can be grown in pots on the patio and potatoes only need a small patch of land. You can also grow your own herbs in pots on the window sill.

Letting the kids help is a great way to get them outdoors and gardening is an activity that all the family can enjoy.

Says Imogen: 'It's very encouraging to see the amount of toddlers and children who want to come and help in the gardens at Pensthorpe. Kids get a real sense of wonder and fun from watching things grow and establishing their own gardens.

'Gardening is a very peaceful hobby and gives you plenty of time to think. Health and happiness is one of the greatest benefits and most gardeners I know are cheerful souls and cup-half-full people!'