Author: Spencer Brooks

How Nature Makes You More Creative

Camping

Camping

In 2011, Dr. David Strayer sent 56 people out into the American wilderness. 

The locales varied — some people went to Alaska or Washington, others to Colorado — but the rules were the same for everyone: four days backpacking in the wild, disconnected from society. 

The hikers spent their days walking through the trees, swimming in lakes, setting up campgrounds, and sitting around fires. 

On the morning of day four, they took a cognitive test. To score well, they had to make unusual mental connections that required them to think outside the box — a measure of creativity. 

The results were extraordinary. After just three days in nature, the hikers showed a 50% increase in creative thinking[*]. They were less rigid in their problem solving and were able to dream up connections that they normally couldn’t make. They were quantifiably more creative.

How Nature Turns On Creativity

When the results got back to Dr. Strayer, he was thrilled. Strayer is a cognitive neuroscientist, and a famous one at that. In 2010, his groundbreaking research on how your brain responds to texting while driving (hint: it’s not good) earned him a spot on Oprah’s couch. 

In fact, most of Strayer’s research focuses on distracted driving and how the brain responds to multitasking. A study about nature and the brain was well outside his main field.

But Strayer had always been a nature lover. He would go for hikes to clear his head, and he found that he got many of his best ideas after a few days of camping or backpacking. When a friend brought up similar experiences, Strayer decided to find out why nature might make people more creative. 

Several years (and many studies) later, we have a fairly good answer. There are a few things about nature that turn on your brain’s creative side. 

Your Rational Brain Gets A Break

Your frontal cortex is the rational, goal-oriented part of your brain. It governs things like attention, planning, and organization.

During the average workday, your frontal cortex gets quite a bit of exercise. It turns on when you plan your schedule, send emails, coordinate meetings, complete projects, and so on. For many of us, the rational part of the brain is often working overtime. 

In order to stay on task, your frontal cortex needs order. It doesn’t like daydreaming or strange thoughts. It wants to keep you on the rails so you get things done — so when it’s active, it spends energy inhibiting the creative parts of your brain[*]. 

Out in nature, there’s not much planning or scheduling to do. As a result, your frontal cortex can take a well-deserved break. 

And when your frontal cortex powers down, the creative parts of your brain are free to turn on. After a couple days outdoors, your brain begins making connections that it might not have made in an office setting. Nature allows your brain to settle into more creative thinking. 

Nature Offers Inspiration

Albert Einstein famously said, “Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.” 

The world’s greatest physicist is not alone. Throughout history, writers, painters, composers, scientists, and philosophers have credited nature as a source of inspiration. 

Today, drawing creative ideas from nature has become a studied field. It’s called bioinspiration, and it’s a strategy used by bioengineers, architects, artists, and everyone in between[*]. 

Nature is full of paradoxes. It’s both simple and complex, familiar and otherworldly, beautiful and terrifying. It seems to defy reason, yet functions in a perfectly rational way. 

Observing the natural world can expand your mind and is often a wellspring of creative inspiration. 

Final Thoughts

Since his groundbreaking study, Dr. Strayer has seen several other labs replicate his results: a couple days in nature makes you about 50% more creative[*]. 

Today, Strayer is doing more in-depth research into how our brains respond to the natural world. But it sounds like he’s already pretty convinced of nature’s benefits. In an interview after his first study published, he offered simple advice: “Go outside for three days and turn your phone off.” 

If you’re looking for some creative inspiration, his advice may be worth taking.

A Beginner’s Guide to Gardening

Family in Garden

Family in GardenIn the last decade, a new hobby has taken hold in America: gardening. 

More and more people are discovering the joys of keeping a garden. A recent study found that since 2009[*]:

  • 17% more Americans have started gardening
  • 63% more millennials have started gardening
  • 33% of households grow some of their own food

Why the sudden upswing in gardening? It may be that people want to eat better produce. It could be a desire to spend more time outdoors in an increasingly indoor world. Or it could be the simple pursuit of beauty — the pleasure of seeing a marigold bloom or a sapling grow its first leaf. 

Whatever the reason, gardening is a relaxing and productive hobby, and it’s becoming more popular than ever. 

If you want to start gardening, this article has everything you need. It covers all the basics, including the following sections:

  1. Choose your plants
  2. Find your growing season
  3. What your plant needs to grow
  4. Basic gardening tools
  5. Plant your garden
  6. Water your garden

Gardening may seem overwhelming at first. Just relax and take your time going through this guide. You’ll be growing your first plant in no time. 

Step 1: Choose Your Plants

The first step in gardening is choosing what plants you want to grow. In order to choose, you have to know your planting zone

Plants are sensitive to their environment, especially when it comes to temperature. A palm tree won’t thrive in the arctic and a delicate spring flower will burn up in desert heat. 

Fortunately, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has a planting zone tool that uses temperature data to help you figure out which plants will thrive in your area. You just put in your zip code and the tool tells you which planting zone (also called a hardiness zone) you live in, from 1-11. 

Most seeds have ideal planting zones listed on the packet. You can also do a quick Google search to find good plants for your area. 

Example

Let’s say you live in Rowe, Massachusetts and you want to grow vegetables. 

You put your zip code (01367) into the USDA planting zone tool and discover that you’re in planting zone 5b. 

A quick Google search of “zone 5b vegetables” reveals that asparagus, beets, broccoli, carrots, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, and a host of other plants will thrive in your garden. 

Now you know what to grow. The next step is figuring out when to start planting. 

Step 2: Find Your Growing Season

Frosts — sudden freezes from a drop in temperature — can kill your plants before they’ve had a chance to grow. They happen throughout winter and usually end in spring.

A growing season is the time between the last spring frost and the first autumn frost. During your growing season, plants will thrive because they’re safe from frosts (though some especially hardy plants, like pine trees and other evergreens, can survive year-round with no issues). 

Again, there’s an easy tool to figure out your growing season. The Farmer’s Almanac growing tool will tell you first and last frost dates, as well as the length of time between them. As long as you plant in that window, your plants should be safe (unless there’s an unseasonably late or early frost). 

Once you know your growing season, you have to figure out how long your plants take to grow. Arugula, for example, grows from a seed in 3-4 weeks, while celery takes a full 16 weeks. 

You want to plan ahead to make sure your plants grow before the last frost of the year. Otherwise they may die before they bloom or are ready to harvest. 

Example

Let’s continue with the Rowe, Massachusetts example. You’re in planting zone 5b, and you’ve decided to grow beets. 

First, you go to the Farmer’s Almanac growing tool and type in your zip code (01367). You see that the last spring frost of the year is May 16th, and the first autumn frost is September 24th. That leaves you with a growing season of 127 days in between. 

A Google search of “beets growing time” reveals that beets take 45-60 days to grow, from seed to harvest. 

That means the latest you can plant beets is 60 days before September 24th, the first autumn frost. You need to plant your beets by July 26th. 

Step 3: What Your Plant Needs To Grow

Every plant needs three things to grow: 

  • Sun 
  • Water
  • Soil nutrients

Balancing these three elements is the key to gardening. Each plant is unique — some need lots of sun and not much water, while others are constantly thirsty but thrive in the shade. 

Here’s how to harness sun, water, and soil to help your plants grow.

Sun

Plants absorb sunlight through a process called photosynthesis — they convert sunlight into energy that helps them grow. 

Most plants fall into one of three categories:

 

  • Direct sunlight. This means 6+ hours per day of full, uninterrupted sunlight. Many fruits and vegetables fall into this category. 

 

 

  • Partial shade. Some sun, maybe from morning sunlight, with shade throughout the hottest parts of the day. Many spring flowers do best with partial shade. 

 

 

  • Full shade. Minimal sunlight, with protection from the sun for most of the day. Ferns, mosses, ivies, and delicate shrubs often thrive in the shade. 

 

Does your yard get full, direct sunlight for most of the day? You’ll want to choose plants that thrive in sunlight, or make artificial shade by draping a shade cloth over plants that prefer sun protection. 

Is your yard shady for most of the day? Look for plants that prefer cooler, darker climates. 

Most plants and seeds list their sun requirements on their packaging. You can also always do some online research. 

Water

Plants convert sunlight, carbon dioxide from the air, and hydrogen from water into sugar, their main source of energy. 

Without water, your plants won’t be able to make food, and they won’t grow. 

Just like with sunlight, different plants need different amounts of water. Some are quite thirsty and want water every day, while others can go days or even weeks without a watering. 

You can find out a plant’s specific water needs by searching online. 

Soil Nutrients

All the other nutrients a plant needs come from soil. A plant lays down roots, and when you water the soil, essential minerals dissolve into the water. Then the roots drink up the water, nourishing the plant so it can grow.

There are two main things to think about when it comes to soil:

 

  • Nutrients. Plants need 13 essential minerals to grow. If your soil doesn’t have certain nutrients (and many soils don’t), your plant will struggle to survive. For that reason, many gardeners add fertilizer like manure, compost, or packaged plant nutrients to make sure their plants have all the nutrients they need. You can find fertilizers at your local home improvement store, or you can order all-purpose fertilizer online. 

 

 

  • pH. This is a measure of a soil’s acidity. If soil is too acidic or too alkaline, your plants won’t be able to absorb nutrients, and they won’t grow. Most plants want a soil pH of between 6.0 and 7.0. 

 

If you’re a new gardener, make life easy on yourself and get a soil testing kit. You take a sample of your soil, mail it in, and within a few days, you’ll get back a full report on your soil. 

The report includes nutrients and pH, as well as exactly how much fertilizer and other compounds to add to make your soil fertile. 

If you’re doing raised-bed planting (see below), you can also skip all this and just fill your garden beds with bags of soil from your local home improvement store. 

Example

It’s June in Rowe, Massachusetts, which means it’s time to plant your beets. You google “beets sun needs” and discover that beets do best in full sun. 

Then you google “beets water needs” and see that beets need at least an inch of water every week — that’s one or two good, deep waterings. 

Half your backyard has almost no shade — it’s bright and sunny all day. The other half is shaded by your neighbor’s trees. You choose an area in the sunny part and decide to plant your beets there. 

Step 4: Basic Gardening Tools

You’re almost ready to start planting! The last things you need are a few simple gardening tools. 

A raised garden bed is a great way to start your first garden. It’s basically a box that you fill with soil, then use to plant your garden. You can buy raised garden beds at your local home improvement store, or you can make your own out of plywood and brackets

Raised garden beds give you more control over your soil quality, but if you want to skip them, you can also plant directly into the ground. 

Either way, you’ll need the following:

  • Trowel. Used for digging in soil by hand, and for harvesting vegetables. 
  • Watering can. Used to water plants by hand (unless you’re using a watering system discussed below). 
  • Shovel. Used to move large amounts of soil or fertilizer, or to dig holes for larger plants. 
  • Rake and Hoe. Used to remove weeds and till the soil, which prevents it from getting compacted so that water and oxygen can’t get through it.
  • Bulb planter (optional). If you’re planting flowers that grow from a bulb, a bulb planter will make your life much easier by digging a perfect, bulb-shaped hole for planting. 

With these tools, you’ll have everything you need to start planting. 

Step 5: Plant Your Garden

Now that you have all the knowledge and tools you need, it’s time to start planting your garden. 

Most people start their garden from seeds, which is a simple and affordable option. The majority of vegetables and flowers grow easily from seeds. 

However, if you have a short growing season or you want your plants to mature faster, you can also buy small starter plants (or bulbs for flowers) that already have a few weeks of growth.

You can find both seeds and starter plants at your local home improvement store.

If you’re using a raised garden bed, fill it to the top with soil. If you’re planting right into the ground, use your hoe to till the soil — drag the hoe across the ground — until the soil is loose and easy to handle. 

To plant from seeds, simply follow the directions on the seed packet. Different seeds prefer to be planted at different depths. Some like to be right on the surface, while others prefer to be planted a couple inches under the surface. Your seed packet will tell you what you need to know. 

To plant a starter plant, dig out a hole using your trowel or shovel that’s big enough to fit the plant and its roots. Then remove the plant from its plastic pot, put it in the ground, and pack soil around it so it stands upright and is the same level above ground that it was in the container. The roots should be covered with soil. 

You want to give your plants room to grow, so plant the seeds a few inches apart from one another in a neat row. That way they won’t get crowded as they sprout. 

That’s it! Your plants are in the ground and are ready to start growing. All they need is water. 

Example

You have your beet seeds, you bought a raised garden bed, and you’ve chosen a sunny plot of land in your backyard. It’s time to plant. 

You fill the garden bed with all-purpose soil you bought at your local home improvement store. Your beet seed packet says to plant the seeds ½-inch deep and 2 inches apart, in rows that are 1 foot apart from each other. 

You sprinkle the seeds into appropriately spaced rows and cover them with about ½-inch of soil. You’ve done it; your beets are ready to start growing. 

Step 6: Water Your Garden

All the hard work is done. Now you just have to water your plants and watch them grow. 

Each plant has different watering needs, and watering depends on a few different factors. If you live somewhere with intense heat and dry air (like a desert), you may need to water every day. If you get a lot of rain throughout your growing season, you may hardly need to water at all. 

A good general rule is to keep the top 3-4 inches of your soil damp. Stick your finger into the soil all the way to the base of your knuckle. If the soil is damp, your plants are probably happy. If the soil is dry, it’s time to water. 

Here are a couple basic tips for watering:

  • Water in the early morning or evening. If you water during the day, the sun will evaporate a lot of the water. It’s a waste of water, and it makes it hard for you to gauge how much water your plants are really getting. 

 

  • Do fewer, deeper waterings. You want water to make it all the way down to your plants’ roots. It’s better to do a couple deep waterings each week than to give your plants a shallow watering every day. The exception is if you’re in a very hot, dry place, like a desert. In that case, you may want to do deep watering every day. 

 

You can water a few different ways:

  • Watering can. Classic, cheap, handheld. Watering cans are a good choice for beginners, although they’re the most time-consuming and labor-intensive way to water.
  • Hose and nozzle. Use your hose connection to spray water across your plants. Faster and more even than a watering can. 
  • Above-ground oscillating sprinkler. Hook it up to your hose connection and turn it on for a few minutes every day. It’ll water your whole garden automatically with minimal effort on your part. Just don’t forget to turn it off. 
  • In-ground sprinkler with B-hyve timer. The easiest and most environmentally friendly way to water. Just install the in-ground sprinkler system and set the B-hyve smart home water timer, and your plants will enjoy perfect watering, every time. The B-hyve connects to WiFi and uses weather conditions to predict exactly how much water your garden needs. You can control it from your smartphone or laptop, there’s minimal water waste, and you never have to worry about forgetting to water your plants again. 

Final Thoughts

Gardening is a relaxing and enjoyable way to get in touch with nature. With a few minutes of research, seeds, and some basic tools, you’ll have everything you need to start your garden today. 

And if you don’t have a yard (or outdoor gardening seems intimidating), why not start an indoor garden? Growing houseplants or herbs is a great way to get familiar with plants from the comfort of your home.

Indoor Jungle: How Houseplants Can Make You A Happier Person

Houseplants

Houseplants

Aristotle, one of history’s most famous philosophers, said, “In all things of nature there is something of the marvelous.” 

It turns out (perhaps unsurprisingly) that Aristotle was right. Over the last few decades, a growing body of research has found that we would all do well to spend more time in the great outdoors. 

Recent studies reveal that a simple walk in the woods relieves stress and wards off depression[*]. Gardening helps people recover faster from brain injuries[*], and a single weekend spent camping boosts your immune system for more than a month[*]. In short, nature is great for your health. 

But what do you do if you don’t have access to nature? 

A lot of us live in small city apartments, lack a yard in which to garden, or are too busy to get away on a camping trip. 

If you want more greenery in your life (and the health benefits that come with it), there’s a simple and elegant solution: bring nature indoors with you. 

The Joys and Benefits of Keeping Houseplants

It turns out you can get a lot of the health benefits of nature without leaving your home. 

  • A 2015 study found that caring for houseplants reduced stress, anxiety, and fight-or-flight response in healthy adults[*]. 
  • High school students who looked at houseplants for three minutes showed an increase in heart rate variability — an indicator of relaxation[*]. 
  • Patients rated hospital rooms with plants as more relaxing, and many hospitals in Nordic countries like Sweden and Denmark use houseplants to improve their patients’ recovery[*]. 
  • Children surrounded by real plants concentrated better in school, reported better mood, and showed a decrease in theta brain waves, which are a sign of inattention and sleepiness[*]. Interestingly, realistic fake plants did not give students the same benefits. 

Planting Healthier Indoor Air

Houseplants have another benefit too. 

In the late 1980s, NASA researchers were looking for ways to keep air fresh for their astronauts during space travel. They realized that in the perfectly sealed environment of a spacecraft, pollutants released by the spacecraft materials would quickly build up. 

As a result, NASA scientists began looking into using indoor plants to create cleaner air[*]. 

While they ultimately didn’t send houseplants into space, the NASA researchers discovered that plants were very effective at improving air quality. Their work spurred a new field of research into houseplants as natural air filters. 

  • Houseplants removed 35-85% of several common carcinogens in indoor air, including chemicals that are common in furniture, textiles, and construction materials[*]. 
  • Households with plants showed a decrease in indoor air pollutants that trigger asthma[*]. The longer participants had their plants, the more their home’s air quality improved. 
  • Different houseplants filter different compounds, so it’s good to have a variety of plants in each room[*]. 

Benefits aside, growing houseplants is a joyful hobby. Plants bring life into your home and add depth and beauty to any room. Your plants will grow with you, and if you take good care of them, they’ll live forever — you can pass them on to your children. 

3 Great Houseplants for Beginners

Here are three species of houseplant that are perfect for beginners:

  • ZZ plant (Zamioculcas zamiifolia). This plant has dark, lustrous leaves and is resistant to all pests. It’s also nearly impossible to kill. You only have to water your ZZ plant about once a month (although it will grow faster if you water it once a week), and it will thrive in any light conditions. 

 

  • Rubber plant (Ficus elastica). The rubber plant gets its name from compounds in its sap, which can be used to make latex. It has broad, handsome leaves that come in a variety of colors. Dark rubber plants are almost black, while ruby rubber plants have pink leaves that turn red as they mature. You can also find a tricolor varietal whose leaves look like watercolor paintings. Water rubber plants once every two weeks. They’ll thrive in any light condition. 

 

  • Pothos (Epipremnum aureum). Pothos grows faster than almost any other common houseplant. It’s happy in any light condition and only needs watering once every two weeks or so. Pothos plants offer a lot of lush, green foliage with minimal care.

Houseplants are a simple way to bring nature into your home. You can find indoor plants at your nearest home improvement store or plant nursery. They’re inexpensive, easy to maintain, and will improve your mood, stress, air quality, and more.

A Day In The Life: Korean Forest Healing Instructor

Forest Bathing

Forest Bathing

In the 1980s, Japan was struggling with a mental health crisis. Its citizens were suffering from depression, anxiety, and suicide at record levels. As the problem grew, the government hired the country’s best psychologists to come up with a solution.  

They came back with an idea that would influence Japanese culture for decades: shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing.” 

The government suggested that its citizens take advantage of Japan’s extraordinary forests. Psychiatrists told their patients to spend time in nature to ease the stresses of daily life. City dwellers began prioritizing time in the countryside, and shinrin-yoku gradually became a household idea[*]. 

It wasn’t long before the South Korean government noticed Japan’s success. South Korea was facing its own mental health crisis, and with 64% of the country covered in forest, Korea had a unique opportunity to try forest healing on a national scale. 

The Korean government decided to fund an enormous study on the benefits of being in nature. They designated several areas as “healing forests,” and the Korean Forest Service staffed them with “healing instructors” — park rangers who spend their days taking sick people into nature to help them get better. 

The Healing Benefits of Nature

With the government behind them, Korean Forest Service healing instructors have begun practicing a new form of therapy. 

They take small groups of people who have health issues — stress, depression, anxiety, and even cancer — and walk with them through South Korea’s dense, tranquil forests. 

At various times throughout the walk, the instructor stops and asks the members to do a simple activity. 

  • At one point, the group may lie down and look at the sky for a few minutes. 
  • At another, group members may take off their shoes and walk barefoot, focusing on how the earth feels beneath their feet. 
  • Toward the end of the walk, the instructor may ask the group members to close their eyes, breathe deeply, and listen to the sounds of nature around them. 

At first glance, these practices seem too simple to make much of a difference. How could a walk in nature help someone with severe anxiety or cancer?

But it turns out that spending quiet, intentional time in nature has a profound impact on both mental and physical health. 

Before and after each walk, the healing instructors collect data on the people walking. They measure blood pressure, hormone levels, markers of stress, immune function, and more. 

The results have given us valuable insight into the benefits of a simple walk in the woods. 

  • Walking briefly in nature twice a week reduces depression, anxiety, and fatigue, and improves markers of heart health[*].
  • Moving from an urban environment to a more rural one sustainably improves mental health[*].
  • Nature walks improve immune function and boost natural killer cell function — one of your body’s main defenses against cancer[*]. 

 Elderly people who take regular walks in nature show improvements in brain health that protect against dementia[*].

  • Spending time in nature decreases cortisol, your body’s main stress hormone[*].
  • Time in nature also speeds up recovery from work-related burnout and chronic stress[*].

In 2016, the Korean Forest Service had just three designated healing forests across Korea. Today, there are almost 40, each staffed with park rangers dedicated to improving mental health. 

The growth of Korea’s forest program speaks to a simple and easily overlooked truth: if you’re feeling overwhelmed by life, a quiet walk in the woods may help you get back on track.

How Nature Changes Your Brain

Hiking in the woods

Hiking in the woods

In 2013, neuroscientists made a fascinating discovery. As you read this, there’s a tiny part of your brain — right in the middle, between your ears — that’s on the lookout for snakes[*]. 

That brain region is called the pulvinar. If you’ve ever jumped at a garden hose or an oddly curved stick, you’ve felt the pulvinar activate. It controls attention, and a part of it is specifically made to detect snakelike shapes.

For millions of years, snake detection was an essential part of human survival. We lived in forests and caves, and the split-second advantage that little brain region gave us was often the difference between life and death. 

Today, snakes aren’t a big concern. The average American spends 93% of the day indoors[*]. We’ve traded caves and forests for houses and parks. 

But the fact that you have a special snake detection region in your brain proves an interesting point: your brain evolved for the great outdoors. 

Humans lived in nature for the vast majority of history. Our species grew up among trees, rocks, rivers, and mountains. Nature is in our DNA — and research suggests that we’d be happier if we spent a little more time in it.

It turns out your brain responds to the natural world in a profound and restorative way. Here’s why nature is good for your brain and how you can get more of it in your daily life. 

Your Brain On Nature

Simply being around nature changes your brain in a variety of ways. 

Relaxation

When your brain is in a state of relaxed happiness, it produces electrical patterns called alpha brain waves. If you’ve ever tried meditation, you know the feeling alpha brain waves create — a sense of peaceful wellbeing. 

Nature increases your alpha brain waves too. A 15-minute walk in the woods boosted people’s alpha brain waves at levels equivalent to meditation[*]. The participants also felt less stressed and anxious post-walk. 

Another study found that you don’t even need to be in the woods. Simply looking at photos of nature increased people’s alpha waves more than looking at photos of city streets[*]. 

If you live near greenery, try adding a couple nature walks to your weekly outline. And if you’re indoors all day, maybe you’ll fill your office with houseplants. It could help you feel more relaxed in your daily life. 

Depression and Mood

It’s not just what you see in nature. Your brain responds to fresh air, too.  

Plants and trees release sweet-smelling molecules called phytoncides into the air. These compounds make up many of the scents of the forest. The smell of pine trees, the deep scent of damp leaves, the menthol freshness of eucalyptus — they all come from phytoncides. 

Breathing in phytoncides may help relieve depression and improve mood[*][*]. In rats, phytoncides boost serotonin levels — the same brain chemical that antidepressants increase[*]. 

Next time you’re in nature, stand still, close your eyes, and take a few deep breaths. You’ll feel your nervous system calm down. 

Mental Clarity

People who spent 20 minutes gardening showed an increase in BDNF, a protein in your brain that improves learning, memory, and long-term brain health[*]. 

Gardening therapy is also common in brain rehabilitation centers. People with brain injuries heal significantly faster and report higher life satisfaction when they grow gardens[*]. 

Bring More Nature into Your Life

The easiest way to get in touch with nature is to go for a walk in the woods or a hike. But for a lot of us, that’s not a convenient option. 

If you live in the city or suburbs, try bringing nature to you. Buy a few houseplants to create an indoor jungle for yourself. Start a garden, whether it’s in your yard or on your windowsill. Or just sit outside and watch a sunset now and then. 

However you do it, find a way to incorporate nature into your daily life. You’ll be happier and healthier for it.