The Outdoors Is, Indeed, Great

By Lambert Strether of Corrente.

Readers know I often advocate walks (and look up; if down, not at your shoes). Being of a melancholic temperament, I think it’s important to move, no matter the direction; and the best way to move is outdoors. And now “the science” backs me up! From The World Journal of Biological Psychiatry, “Spend time outdoors for your brain – an in-depth longitudinal MRI study,” the Conclusion:

Results indicate remarkable and potentially behaviorally relevant plasticity of cerebral structure within a short time frame driven by the daily time spent outdoors. This is compatible with anecdotal evidence of the health and mood-promoting effects of going for a walk. The study may provide the first evidence for underlying ce]rebral mechanisms of so-called green prescriptions with possible consequences for future interventions in mental disorders.

Here are the “materials” for the study:

[W]e investigated six medication-free, healthy, and currently, urban-living individuals (age 24–32 years, one male, all living in Berlin) on 40–50 measurement points, distributed over 6–8 months with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Participants were working at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development, where the data was assessed at the MRI scanner at a time of participants’ convenience and not according to a strict schedule. Most participants were scanned about twice a week, between summer 2013 and early 2014.

The Ethics Committee of Charité University Clinic, Berlin, approved of the study, including the fact that the participants were employee members of the institute. Our rationale for this was 2-fold; firstly, we thought that scientists working with MRI regularly can anticipate best what it is like to be in the scanner that regularly and know the typical data handling in science well enough to be able to consent or dissent to it, and also to sharing the data with other scientists. Secondly, it seemed much more feasible and reasonable to ask individuals who were working around the lab already, to participate, because the life changes caused by participating in this study were much lower for members of our institutes, who are regularly pilot subjects for MRI studies anyways.

Lots of confounders here, I would say; I would also imagine that if we wanted to find out whether six scientists living in Berlin and working at the Max Planck Institute ought to get outdoors more, all we would have to do is ask their mothers. Be that as it may:

Most strikingly, and independently of affect, we observed that more hours spent outdoors was associated with higher grey matter volume in [the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC)[1]]. We then searched for factors potentially associated with spending time outdoors, that may also have a positive effect, or that could constitute a potential mechanism by which time spent outdoors may substantiate in more grey matter volume in DLFPC. It came as a surprise to us that none of these covariates, namely sunshine duration, amount of fluid intake, hours of free time, or physical activity, explained variance in DLPFC volume. A factor that we were not able to enter as a covariate, and that may potentially explain the observed effect, is air pollution. It is well-known that air pollution is oftentimes worse indoors compared to outdoors, when the air is not well-ventilated, which can seriously affect the health of the inhabitants (Leung 2015; WHO 2021). This could potentially explain the positive effects of spending time outdoors on the brain and affect. However, further studies are needed in which the exact time and location of outdoor exposure are assessed so that it can be related to air pollution measurements, ideally combined with devices measuring indoor air quality.

(The study, though published this month, was conducted in summer 2013 and early 2014, making the suggestion that ventilation makes a difference all the more poignant. It is pleasant to think that the effect of properly understanding aerosol transmission could have the knock-on effect of improving people’s positive affect[2].)

The conclusion:

Results indicate remarkable and potentially behaviorally relevant plasticity of cerebral structure within a short time frame driven by the daily time spent outdoors. This is compatible with anecdotal evidence of the health and mood-promoting effects of going for a walk. The study may provide the first evidence for underlying cerebral mechanisms of so-called green prescriptions with possible consequences for future interventions in mental disorders.

I’m not at all sure about “cerebral mechanisms.” For example, if we thought that going for a walk would have a mechanical effect, that would eliminate the element of surprise (like, say, the 100th psychedelic experience as opposed to the first). But would a walk without surprise — as a walk in, for example, a prison might be — have the same “mood promoting effect”? I doubt it. However, I do like “potentially behaviorally relevant plasticity of cerebral structure.” I don’t think the brain (hence, hence doing a lot of work, here, the mind) is easily malleable. However, it’s important to understand that the brain (hence, the mind) is not the seat of an essence, as modern-day phrenologists believe. Finally, for those who believe that consciousness is not seated within the skull, it would seem natural that expanding its field of operation from indoors to outdoors would have a material effect, much as a flooding river cuts deeper into its banks.

The Financial Times seems to have arrived at the same conclusion in the same week, albeit by a different route. From (granted, in the “How to Spend It” section) “‘Gardening is a way to be a human being” (the photographs are gorgeous; clear your cookies, search on the title, and click through):

Spaniard Fernando Caruncho is acclaimed for his vast minimalist landscapes but much prefers to be called a gardener, one who believes his profession is about more than planting and prettifying: it is “a way to be a human being”…. Plato taught his students in the garden of Akademos while Aristotle’s Lyceum was a verdant plot with a shaded grove (from where it got its name) and a botanical garden. These were the places where the physical and spiritual came together. “The garden is the place of knowledge. It is a fundamentally spiritual point of view,” he says.

I don’t much like the word “spiritual,” partly because at least in this culture we oppose it to the material, and partly because of woo woo in the form of scented candles, grifters, and priests (sorry for the redundancy). But replace it with “green prescription” and “positive affect” and I can cope. More:

Caruncho’s objective is to create a transformative space.

That is an excellent objective. Gardening certainly transformed me (as I believe, for the better).

He often uses a minimal palette, referencing the natural colours of the surrounding landscape. Critics have accused him of disliking flowers, which are used sparingly, but he insists that he loves them. “There is nothing more delicate, wonderful, surprising and beautiful than a jasmine, a rose, an orange blossom or a camellia,” he says, revealing that he plants flowers with restraint to underline or enhance an overall scheme. He is known to use mass plantings of a single plant – cosmos or camellias, oleanders, figs, cypress or olive trees – in praise of them.

Masses of color in a “grandmother’s garden“: My ideal, though indeed I do not garden in a Mediterranean climate:

“One flower is all flowers,” he says. “In the Mediterranean [where most of his gardens can be found] the blossom time is very short, mostly from May to June, which is why I use the flower as a counterpoint between the trees and the rocks.”

That’s totally untrue. For one thing, different flowers attract different pollinators.

Every space is a living artwork [like Amazonia] that dies and is reborn, and each is individual, requiring a response that summons up the spirit of the place. It is the living, changing environment that makes each project so unique. The three elements he sees as critical are geometry, water and light, and his starting point, even when designing a small urban garden, is the sky.

That’s a great tip for planning a garden, making the sky the starting point. That forces you to look somewhere other than your shoes or feet; induces you to think about prevailing winds (birds; fungus) and the arc of light across the plot; and gets you thinking about canopy right away (instead of five years on.

Of course, you may not have a plot of earth to garden in, or access to a community garden, or even a balcony to grow plants in pots on (as I know some readers do). I can’t advise house plants, because I don’t know how to keep them alive. But hopefully, you can at least get outside — double-masked in the age of Delta, and keeping an even greater distance than was usual — and look at other people’s gardens, or walk through public gardens. (You could also try dumping packets of wildflower by the road or in the median, just to see what grows.)

However, if you seek to benefit from “potentially behaviorally relevant plasticity of cerebral structure” through gardening, do remember or consider this passage from Ursula LeGuin’s story, “Old Music and the Slave Women,” set in a world where there is a civil war between slaveowners and slaves. Esdan, “Old Music,” a diplomat captured by slaveowners, looks out from the window of his cell and muses:

The room looked out from the second floor over the gardens of Yaramera, terraced slopes and flowerbeds, walks, lawns, and a series of ornamental lakes and pools that descended gradually to the river: a vast pattern of curves and planes, plants and paths, earth and still water, embraced by the broad living curve of the river. All the plots and walks and terraces formed a soft geometry centered very subtly on an enormous tree down at the riverside. It must have been a great tree when the garden was laid out four hundred years ago. It stood above and well back from the bank, but its branches reached far out over the water, and a village could have been built in its shade. The grass of the terraces had dried to soft gold. The river and the lakes and pools were all the misty blue of the summer sky. The flowerbeds and shrubberies were untended, overgrown, but not yet gone wild. The gardens of Yaramera were utterly beautiful in their desolation. Desolate, forlorn, forsaken, all such romantic words befitted them, yet they were also rational and noble, full of peace. They had been built by the labor of slaves. Their dignity and peace were founded on cruelty, misery, pain. Esdan was Hainish, from a very old people, people who had built and destroyed Yaramera a thousand times. His mind contained the beauty and the terrible grief of the place, assured that the existence of one cannot justify the other, the destruction of one cannot destroy the other. He was aware of both, only aware.

Of course, our situation is not Esdan’s. But if you do end up gardening, my advice would be to avoid “the labor of slaves” — in modern terms, “the labor of wage slaves” — insofar as possible. Grow as much as possible from seed. Make sure your seed supplier is either a co-op or very small. Do not patronize box stores (they’re unhealthy anyhow). Let no organic matter leave the property. If possible, don’t bring any in either (I had a very bad experience with landfill mulch, of which more later). Avoid pesticides or insecticides, and make sure they don’t poison the water or the soil if you use them. And so on. Detach yourself as much as you reasonably can from, well, capital. You can’t build a “transformative space” by incorporating materials designed to keep you exactly who and what you are. And where, and how, and why!


[1] Science Direct: “The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is a region of the frontal lobes that is most typically associated with executive functions including working memory and selective attention.”

[2] Although a cynic would suggest that’s why aerosol transmission is so vociferously opposed, especially in schools.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. Carolinian

    It is reported that Beethoven mentally composed his music while taking walks. Einstein was also a big believer in walks. ‘Nuff said!!

    Just back from mine. And my town is in the process of building many miles of trails, some more natural than others. For once this would be tax dollars well spent (along with NGO dollars).

      1. witters

        Adam Smith liked to walk. One day he walked around 40 miles before he came too. So he stayed in the only, uncomfortable, night in the only Inn available, and walked back in the morning.

  2. Glossolalia

    I find that weeding my garden relieves more stress than even proper exercise. Dirt under the fingernails, etc. Going for a jog is great but nothing gives a sense of accomplishment than patch cleared of weeds. I think the next step in my gardening game is better planning to have flowers in bloom all season long. Right now everything has pretty much flowered by the end of July.

    1. Samuel Conner

      A “quick fix” for all-season bloom would be Salvia splendens, some varieties of which bloom from mid/late Spring until first frost. But it’s an annual, and I don’t think it self-seeds well.

    2. Carla

      Don’t know where you’re located, but many pollinators native to my area start blooming from mid-July to August, and continue even into October: rudbeckia, golden rod, some varieties of coreopsis, various mums. Coreopsis and yarrows are among the perennials that give continual bloom if regularly deadheaded, or just picked for bouquets!

      When cut back hard, some perennials (cranesbill geraniums, prairie mallow, catmint) will have a second flush of bloom to take you from late summer into fall.

      Finally, there are many varieties of Japanese anemones in a range of heights. They are gems of the late summer garden.

  3. Basil Pesto

    Those with the misfortune of seeing my posts over the years will know that I often go to bat for golf, if I may mix metaphors, when discussions like this come up. This is in part because it’s a fun kind of ambient trolling to partake in on a left-leaning forum, but it’s mostly because I pretty firmly believe in it. I can’t say that it’s treated me, psychiatrically, in a meaningful sense. But it is a joyful thing (this may be in part because 99% of the time I play alone; I figure that the thing that’s most likely to ruin golf for me is other golfers. This definitely puts me in a minority, and is probably unfair of me as well. I have to settle for sharing my best (and worst) moments with the wildlife), physically and mentally invigorating, and extremely healthful.

    Don’t take my word for it though. One of the most famous and accomplished early golf course designers, Alastair MacKenzie, was a physician. Pre-empting this study by about a century, he once wrote:

    Health and happiness are everything in this world. Money grubbing, so-called business, except insofar as it helps to attain this, is of minor importance.

    One of the reasons why I, a medical man, decided to give up medicine and take to golf architecture was my firm conviction of the extraordinary influence on health of pleasurable excitement, especially when combined with fresh air and exercise. How frequently have I, with great difficulty, persuaded patients who were never off my doorstep to take up golf, and how rarely, if ever, have I seen them in my consulting room again.

    I’m not sure it’s transformed me, but I think it’s had broadly the same positive effects as gardening has for Lambert. As I’m in lockdown again and nursing a rib injury, watching four days of The Open this weekend in Sandwich was my vicarious outdoorsiness. It almost did the trick, a magnificent setting on a beautiful weekend, but tainted by the sadness of what I fear is to come as far as the pandemic goes in Great Britain.

    1. juno mas

      A golf course is, of course, a marvelous and agreeable setting for contemplation, even inspiration. But the game of golf makes it a good walk spoiled. ;)

      I will say this for gardens: there is more to understand than you will ever know.

      1. Basil Pesto

        The answer to that from my own amateur research into the matter is very much ‘it depends’, and that they don’t have to be. For example, chemical inputs on British and Australian golf courses are far, far less than in the USA for various, mostly stupid and hard to justify reasons. Golf of course precedes fossil fuel exploitation by many, many years. I have seen studies (from non-golf affiliated afaik conservation journals) which suggest that, depending on the course environment, the carbon sequestration benefits can offset the energy inputs (however these studies didn’t take into account the energy inputs of golfers driving to the courses).

        As an aside, I’ve heard it told that in living memory, the head greenkeeper at St Andrews instructed his staff to forage seaweed from the beach, mix it with sand and use it as a fertiliser. Neat!

        1. PlutoniumKun

          Yup, ‘it depends’. Links courses, for example, tend to use far less chemicals and intervention – but they do involve major disruption of some species that like to breed in dunes. And of course (as Trump found out), its hard to stop them altering dynamically without a lot of heavy engineering which is problematic in its own way.

          Some golf courses are pretty good ways to use waste – some low grade and contaminated land has been made into good golf courses by way of using non-hazardous waste to build up the levels.

          Its also possible of course to manage a golf course in a way that enhances habitats – only the greens ‘need’ to be intensively managed.

          But the construction of highly manicured golf courses – in particular in places where that sort of use shouldn’t exist (in deserts, for example) is crazily destructive. I can’t even watch some of those golf events in the US, those super bright green courses can only be created through a massively intense use of chemical inputs and water.

          1. Basil Pesto

            A quick google maps satellite view of, say, Coachella will quickly lay bare the commercial imperatives of the golf courses there.

            In Australia there are two desert courses with decent turf that I’m aware of (the rest are very modest community courses, often with sand-scrape greens, such as at Coober Pedy, or, more exotically, the 1300km long Nullarbor Links).

            One’s attached to a hotel in Alice Springs, the other’s a municipal course in Kalgoorlie, a goldmining town, built on a former rubbish tip.

          2. drumlin woodchuckles

            Wasn’t TrumpCo Incorporated going to ask the Ireland government for permission to build a seawall to protect one of its precious little golf resorts from a rising sea? I hope the Ireland government denied permission.

            The Ireland government could have reasoned and explained a “no” decision this way: that Trump himself declared man made global warming to be a Liberal Hoax or maybe a Chinese Hoax. It follows that he believes the ocean is not rising because the ice features are not melting to make it rise. He therefor believes his precious little golf resort is not under any threat from a sea which he believes will not rise because there is no global warming to make it rise. He therefor has no reason to think the seawall is needed, and he therefor loses nothing when the Ireland government denies permission based on Trump’s own “no global warming” logic.

            Is the Ireland government tough enough to deny Trump the seawall permission? Is every government around the world tough enough to deny Trump all the seawall permissions he will ask for? Let a rising ocean take every seaside property Trump has.

      2. Carla

        In our region, and many others, I’m sure, country clubs have been closing and their golf courses turned into parks. Amazingly, the park managers say it takes only 5 years of “neglect” (my word, by which I mean, no chemical additions and very light-touch management of the landscape) for a previously poisoned golf course to return to nature. A very positive and hopeful venture! The parklands that have been created this way are thoroughly enjoyed by all who visit them.

  4. doug

    I weed from my wheelchair and take 10′ ‘walks’ with my PT parallel bars which are outside. It is the way to reduce stress and increase QOL for me.

    1. Arizona Slim

      Your story reminds me of one of my local gardening heroes, Dr. Kent Kloepping, who ran the University of Arizona’s Disability Resources for many years. He had one heckuva garden, and he tended it from his wheelchair.

      1. noonespecial

        I’ve seen folks at a senior home using a simple, old-fashion hoe tending to the vegetable/fruit garden, even when having to do it from a chair that is strategically moved around the garden to use by those who cannot remain on their feet, hunched over hacking at the dirt. Must be something good for them to still go at it. I aspire to be an octogenarian hacker like these peoples.

  5. Jeremy Grimm

    This post about gardening reminded me of an idea I had, but never followed through on. Where I live now, I have to be satisfied with the few house plants I have. [My Queen of the Night — which has yet to reward me with a bloom — has grown so large she is starting to push me out of my living room.] The only garden I might have here would be an indoor garden, and I am already short of space. Then I remembered a terrarium garden I had seen, and a small garden of water plants someone grew as a habitat for some pet shrimps. I began noticing the very small wild plants and tiny flowers that grew almost hidden among the other larger wild plants growing along the roadsides and along some of the dirt paths I walked. I thought I might be able to grow a garden of tiny wild flowers in an old fish tank. I imagined how I might in my mind float through my tiny garden and enjoy its magic. But I have not tried to grow that garden. It would not take me outside. It would offer me a calm and beautiful place in which to dream and imagine.

  6. Sf125

    The melancholy Schopenhauer advised a young admirer in March of 1860,

    “Go walking daily, quickly for 2 hours, that will help you more than all baths and it costs nothing. Without my promenades, I would not be at 72 years so perfectly healthy, hale and hearty, as I am and as I remain.”

    Schopenhauer, a biography by David Cartwright, p 544.

  7. c_heale

    I have a few other ideas –

    1. Try not to leave bare soil (okay straight after winter is impossible, but later on on the growing season)
    2. Let some (I usually leave one plant) vegetables flower after they have given their crop (for example lettuces)
    3. Use straw of some kind instead of black plastic mulch
    4. Try not to overweed – a few weeds especially on bare soil will often improve the microclimate (more water retention of the soil, more insects and bugs), and the populations of pollinators will increase due to their being more flowers available at different times. Of course you have to be careful to not let some weeds get out of control
    5. Over a few years without pesticides the populations of pests will settle down (from Odum – Fundamentals of Ecology) – you will always lose some of a crop
    6. If you have a problem with one crop – persistent pests or diseases over many years, you can try growing them earlier in the season (some pests become more prevalent later on, or grow some other crop from a different plant family).
    7. Make compost
    8. Companion planting in my experience does work with one caveat – you usually get reduced yield of one of the crops
    9. Practice crop rotation
    10. Use organic fertilizers and not too much of them.

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      Here is a possible approach to the bare-soil-in-winter problem. If you plant a cover crop of a winter-kill-in-place crop like oats and field peas mixed ( which some of the New England seed companies now sell a pre-mixture of), it will grow where planted until a hard kill-frost, and then die in place. The soil under it will not be bare. It will be covered by the killed-in-place cover-crop “mulch”.

      When I plant my garlic later this year, I will overplant it with that oats/field peas mixture so as to have a winter-killed pre-mulch in place for the garlic to grow up through in early spring.

      About companion planting, if two crops are planted together as companions and one produces less than it would have by itself and the other produces as much as it would have produced if it was by itself, isn’t the overall net-net amount of food thereby grown in that space greater than the amount of food that either of the two companion plants would have grown if grown by itself?

      If so, then one has an overall gain, I should think . . .

    2. Lambert Strether Post author

      > 3. Use straw of some kind instead of black plastic mulch

      I must have been in a rush. I would generalize this to “Avoid all petroleum-based products.” Use string to hold up tomatoes, for example, instead of plastic ties.

      Quite right on bare ground, which should not be. At least seed with white clover!

      My problem is not overweeding :-) but I don’t collect the weeds in a basket or anything; I let them fall and rot where they grew, unless they will spread seeds. It makes sense to me to put whatever minerals the weeds took from the soil back in the same soil. (Compost is for leaves and larger trimmings in my view; I am not good at making compost because turning it is too much like work.)

      Also, buy good garden tools that will last a long time, hopefully from small domestic suppliers.

      1. Samuel Conner

        > Also, buy good garden tools that will last a long time, hopefully from small domestic suppliers.

        The “Lesche King of Spades” garden fork is the sturdiest spading fork I have ever seen (I have broken several lesser spading forks over the years; they consistently failed where the steel fork was joined to the wood or polymer handle.)

        The Lesche spading fork is all steel; with the fork tines welded to a plate that is welded to the steel handle. That join won’t break (or won’t break before something else breaks). It is still possible to bend the tines if one uses it as a pry bar.

        Best of all — it’s “made in USA”, though there is the word “Austria” stamped on the tines of mine.

        The only distributor I have found that has it in stock is Hoss Tools. It’s pricey up front but cheaper over time than lesser forks that fail at the fork/handle join.

        1. drumlin woodchuckles

          I am just speculating here . . . . but it could be that the forky head itself is made in Austria and is then sent here to be joined to the handle. The handle could be made here or made somewhere else. Either way, once the two parts are here, plus the fasteners or fastening methods, they can be put together here and called ” made here” though perhaps “assembled here” might be more technically correct.

          Still and all, there is a world of difference between Austria and China. I almost bet wages and conditions and stuff are as good in Austria as here, and maybe better. So no one is working the cost-differential arbitrage rackets on this, if I am correct. If the head is from Austria, it could be that the expertise and ability to make such a forky head here has been already well and truly lost.

          My personal ” world’s best garden digging fork” remains the Claringdon Forge Bulldog strapped D-handled digging fork. After 20 years of regrettably abusive use, I broke the solid ash-wood handle. Luckily I had bought a second one by that time which I use carefully and non-abusively. Also, I have saved the head and handle-stump from the first one to re-handle it some day. I found it so much better and user friendly than other inferior digging forks I had tried using to that time that it made the diggenmixing function itself almost fun to perform. Perhaps people who think they don’t like work have never had shinola tools to work with. If they tried doing work with sh*t tools, they would have had a sh*tty working experience and would naturally think they don’t like work.

          I can’t even find a picture of it anywhere.

      2. drumlin woodchuckles

        There may come a time when the food you can’t get from your own garden, permaculture-yard, etc. is the food you won’t have at all. Against that day, one hopes you can learn to find some of the work to be a kind of fun, because in the onrushing future, ” no work” may equal ” no food”.

        One hopes not, but one never really knows.

  8. c_heale

    Ideas I try to use in my garden

    Make compost

    Use straw or similar mulch not plastic

    Don’t leave bare earth (leads to drying of the soil and poor water retention) – but this is not possible immediately after winter

    Don’t overweed – weeds often improve the microclimate if you have bare soil and can be removed when you are about to plant, they also help pollinators and bug populations

    Let some of your vegetables flower (are pretty and help pollinators)

    Bug/Pest populations will settle down after a few years (Odum – Fundamentals of Ecology)

    If you have persistent bug/pest problems physical barriers (netting/fences) can help, you can also grow a different crop or plant earlier in the year in some cases – often the pests take time to get going and are worse later in the year

    You always lose some of a crop to pests, etc. – it doesn’t matter unless it’s your livelihood

    Take time to sit and admire the garden

    Try permaculture ideas if practicable

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      > Take time to sit and admire the garden

      It took me several years to discover that for me, that was in fact my garden’s main function. Not vegetables, but flowers, raspberries, sunflowers, etc.

      > Try permaculture ideas if practicable


      (This partially duplicates an earlier comment, but not entirely, so I’m leaving it up.)

  9. drumlin woodchuckles

    The world is an impure place and so I am an impurist.

    I avoid big box stores usually mostly. But if there is something I need for gardening and only one big box store sells it, I can either go there or go without. If it were Amazon, I would go without and try working my whole regimen around to ” not need it” anymore.

    But if it is Home Depot, and the item is Old Castle Block, then I will go get the Old Castle Block at Home Depot. It is a better thing for making raised beds than any other system component I have seen anywhere in reality or on line. It is big and heavy and square and has a slot in each lateral side to slide a retainer board into, and has a hole down the center to drive rebar into the ground it rests on. It uniquely satisfies my needs for a strong-walled strong-cornered raised bed to do different kinds of things in.

    Behold! and dream upon the raised beds one could make with a component like this and good strong boards.

      1. drumlin woodchuckles

        Thanks for this article. It says everything I could think about these blocks and this system. If I ever wanted to build a super-raised bed higher than 3 blocks high, I would try finding out why the manufacturer recommends stopping at 3. If its a stability issue, one could just get longer rebar and drive it deeper into the soil beneath the block. But if that much block weight might crack or crush the bottom block, then that is a harder limit.

        I have seen some heavy plastic material raised bed boards that have a hinged last-few-inches-long piece at their very ends. One could use these with oldcastle blocks to create non-right-angle beds. But I wouldn’t even want to.

        I should think the blocks would last for several decades with non-abusive use. So any carbon emitted to make the blocks would not need to be re-emitted for several decades because the blocks would not need replacing for several decades ( I don’t think).

        How to delay decay of the wooden boards? Someone told me that painting wood surface with vegetable oil will make it waterproof and rot/decay/fungus proof for some time. If one made a melted mix of oil and beeswax and brought it to near smoking heat and then poured it onto the wood, would that rot proof it even longer? Also, in old times, people would burn the surface of wood meant to touch soil and then stop the burning so the wood would have a fractional inch casing of charcoal firmly “welded” to its surface. That would keep wood rotproof for decades. With a combination of all those approaches, one could keep the wooden sideboards of the bed non-rotted and therefor sequestering their embodied carbon, for longer than it would take to grow an equivalent carbon’s worth of new wood for new boards.

    1. Objective Ace

      Is there any benefit to the old castle blocks beyond just screwing/nailing the two pieces of wood together? I visit big box stores rather frequently, so I’m certainly not one to preach–I think it would be relatively easy to avoid big box stores for this reason though if you were so inclined

      1. drumlin woodchuckles

        I have only made one small raised bed with them so far. So actual results and assessment as against ongoing hopes and visions are preliminary.

        The neat thing about the lateral fastening issue is . . . you don’t need screws or nails. The slots in each vertical face of the block are about two inches wide and I think near two inches deep. So you can just slot boards in. And you can slot in boards close to 2 inches thick, which is pretty strong.

        If you line up the blocks exactly on top of eachother in a “blocktower” with the center rebar holes lining up, you can drive any length of rebar you want down the hole as deep as you want into the soil beneath the bottom block for stability in place. If you want to make the bed even higher in a year or two, you can put more block down over the up-sticking rebar and slot in more boards. If you wanted to make a “seasonally temporary” unheated greenhouse structure over the raised bed, the up-sticking rebar and strong boards give you a strong framework to do that on. ( I should think, though I haven’t tried it).

        And if you have to move the garden, or move altogether and take the components with you, you don’t have to unbolt or unscrew wood from wood or anything else. Just unslot the boards out of the block slots, lift the blocks up and off the rebars , and they can all be moved to wherever. Getting the rebar up out of the ground would be the hardest thing.

  10. Wukchumni

    I walk, therefore I ambulatory.

    Most every hike I do is Sisyphus in nature (Grand Canyon notwithstanding) gain a bunch of altitude, give it all back on the way down.

  11. Tom Pfotzer

    What a pleasant post, Lambert. Great way to end the day.

    I get plenty of exercise; I have a farm. When I need a rest, I come in to sit in front of the computer, cool off a little, and see what people are talking about over at NC.


    Lot of very nice posts up above. Best wishes to all.

  12. CanCyn

    Gardening and walking are two of my favourite activities. And I do believe they are both as good for my head as my body. As a youngster I ran and missed it when my knees wouldn’t allow for it anymore. I resented ‘only’ being able to walk but now it is such a pleasant thing. Slow, walks, fast walks, short walks, long walks, no matter the weather, I get in some daily mileage.
    The garden’s benefits have changed over the years. Before I retired, I loved the garden because I had control – well, as much control as Mother Nature allowed me. Plant things, move things, try new things, stick with favourite things, learn, learn, learn, with no one expecting me to follow their strategic plan or provide them with performance stats. It was my escape. Thanks to being lucky enough to be able to retire to a rural spot with a little more land, I have a whole new garden to create and tend. Some woods and more shade than in my former garden, new things to try and to learn about, it is very exciting.
    As far as garden planning is concerned, to other’s advice here, I would add – consider your views from the house and when you walk around, especially around corners. What do you see? What do you want to see? What would look good from that window where you gaze out from indoors? Lots of good inspiration comes when inside looking out and when walking around looking ahead.
    And last – for spring to fall blooming, when your garden seems without blooms, simply check out others in the neighbourhood – what do they have in bloom that you’re missing?

  13. Clark

    Lambert — I’ve been more outdoorsy in my dotage than I was in my youth, but I’m not getting out enough. I once lived for the two weeks per year I spent hiking in New Mexico and Colorado. (Had to miss last year because Covid, etc.) But that’s not sufficient for my mental / physical health. Inspiring post and, once again, the NC commentariat is the best.

    I’m not a gardener but I can understand the appeal.

  14. Samuel Conner

    Bizarre thought: I wonder if there would be similar benefits to “walking in nature” in the context of lucid dreaming.

    1. Wukchumni

      Why not do both?

      I tend to daydream while on trail, not so much off-trail as it requires more attention…

  15. lordkoos

    Humans evolved to walk… for tens of thousands of years it was our primary mode of transport. It is no surprise that walking is good for your brain.


    We currently planning to move across country. I am leaving behind the garden my husband and I made ourselves. It has given us so much. We came home everyday after work and spent the time until dark planting, watering, mulching. We found interesting rocks and plants. We enjoyed the constant change of our yard as new things grew and the old withered away. We have been surprised at how many people that we have never seen and others that came by everyday told us how it made their day. They talked about how they looked forward to fall, winter and spring to see what new flowers or color combinations we planted. The placement of surprises like a blue bunny in the flower pot or a frog peeking out from under a Bush. The wild flowers attracting bees, butterflies and hummingbird. We are sad to leave it behind but are looking forward to a new garden and new plants and people. Reading the nice comments today about walking and gardening fit together here. We the gardeners and the walkers, enjoying nature together. Nice memories from a 28 year gardener.

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