Whether we're at home in West Marin or traveling elsewhere, I seek out gardens. On a recent trip to Paris we discovered a spacious garden in the center of Hotel-Dieu, a working hospital on Ile de la Cite, adjacent to Notre Dame Cathedral. Begun in the seventh century as a hospice and rebuilt in the 1880s, this classical hospital building surrounds a garden containing 30-year-old boxwood hedges outlining flower beds that are replanted each May with fuchsias, sage, impatiens and Indian roses.

A hospital garden? If gardens help patients cure more quickly (the reason, I learned, for this hospital's garden), why don't all hospitals have tranquil gardens? Is gardening good for you?

It seems obvious to me that gardens and gardening are healthy pursuits, but I was curious to see if I could find evidence demonstrating these benefits. Garden books proliferate to inform about beautiful gardens and of the benefits to our environments of sustainable gardening, but I was seeking information about the links between health and gardens. Not surprisingly, I quickly found references to research addressing these questions. Here is a partial summary of what I learned.

Let's begin with the act of gardening and the results of a few studies. The following separate conclusions (in quotes) were from different articles. "A University of Arkansas researcher studied 3,300 women over age 50 and their health records to determine their risk for osteoporosis, and found out that only one other activity besides gardening maintained such a healthy bone mass - pumping at the gym!" "Gardening uses all of the major muscle groups, and can help develop endurance, strength and flexibility."

Other studies have shown that "gardening provides the regular physical exercise listed in the prevention of heart disease, obesity, adult-onset diabetes and high blood pressure." "Research on the people-plant connection has yielded only positive results - no matter if the plant life is a single flower on a desk or a group of trees in a botanic garden."

When researchers surveyed gardeners, they found a variety of benefits identified by the gardeners themselves. Certain tangible benefits were often mentioned, particularly the satisfaction of producing their own produce and flowers, often without the use of chemicals. Gardeners mentioned healthy exercise, being outdoors, and their fascination with watching plants grow and learning about horticulture. Other gardener-identified benefits included gardening as an outlet for artistic expression and involvement in creatively planning and designing their own gardens. Many gardeners found a sense of common purpose with their friends and neighbors, especially when working in community gardens.

Gardens provide islands of serenity and quiet in our hectic lives. Our own gardens can serve as places for contemplation and relaxation. Public parks and gardens are a resource for gardener and nongardener alike, and provide health benefits to those who seek them out. Few places are as serene as a temple garden in Kyoto; as awe-inspiring as the formality and scale of Versailles; as visually satisfying as the Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park. Closer to home, we can seek respite in the landscaped gardens of colleges and universities, churches and temples, and Marin County's bounty of public parks and open space.

That plants and gardens have been identified as an aid to recovering health is not surprising, but one study proved the importance of just looking at nature. In a study in Uppsala, Sweden, 160 postoperative heart patients were asked to look at a landscape, an abstract artwork, or no picture. Those who looked at the landscape had lower anxiety, required less pain medicine and spent a day less in the hospital than the control group patients. The abstract art, however, made patients feel sicker, worse than if they saw no art at all.

Gardens, plants, and landscapes can make a positive difference to one's health, perhaps particularly to the sick and disabled, an insight that the founders of Hotel-Dieu in Paris recognized a long, long time ago.

The University of California Marin Master Gardeners are sponsored by UC Cooperative Extension. For questions about gardening, plant pests or diseases, call 499-4204 from 9 a.m. to noon, and 1 to 4 p.m. weekdays, or bring in samples or pictures to 1682 Novato Blvd., Suite 150B, Novato.