Whether it is tending a window box, digging in the back garden or helping to manage woodland, many people get a great deal of pleasure out of gardening.

But there is more to it than the satisfaction of watching things grow and develop.

Gardening is increasingly becoming recognised by health experts as therapeutic for people recovering from illnesses.

A couple of hours working outside can also give a boost to people's fitness and mental wellbeing.

Mel Gregory from Littlehampton found gardening was the one activity that kept her positive as she recovered from breast cancer.

She said: "It was May when I got back to my garden after the initial treatment and the garden was just starting to come into bloom.

"It felt like I was getting better as the plants and borders began blooming.

"In my mind, I was determined we'd see the summer through together and that's what we did.

"I definitely found gardening the best form of therapy, just sitting and listening to the birds or interacting with the plants and touching them gave me a tremendous feeling of peace.

"It also helped take my mind off the chemotherapy."

Mrs Gregory has recovered well since her diagnosis and operation in 1999 and only has to have one check-up each year.

Leading psychologist Cary Cooper of Manchester's UMIST School of Management said: "A great many cancer patients and their families find that simple pleasures such as tending the garden are a complementary healing therapy to more conventional cancer treatment."

Gardening, like other forms of moderate exercise, will help lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels if done for about 30 minutes per day.

It can also contribute towards preventing noninsulin dependent diabetes, heart disease and strokes.

Being out in the sunshine encourages the body to make Vitamin D which is essential for healthy bones and may slow the progression of osteoporosis.

Digging and shovelling are the most energetic activities in terms of calories used. Between 200 and 360 calories can be burned up by someone spending just half an hour on these activities - but mowing the lawn can also help.

Dr Mark Harris of the Royal College of Physicians agrees gardening has positive physical effects.

He said: "Physical activity is always useful for the body. If it is something a person enjoys, it's even better. It means the exercise is not just a chore."

Researchers have also discovered that walking through an attractive and peaceful garden can help lower stress levels. Sensory gardens can have the same effect on the mind as art therapy.

A survey carried out by the mental health charity Mind found 50 per cent of people believed physical exercise, including gardening, was one of the best activities to boost their mental health.

The British Trust for Conservation Volunteers (BTCV) runs a Green Gym at Portslade and in East Brighton. These help people keep fit through environmental and conservation work.

The BTCV and the former East Sussex, Brighton and Hove Authority carried out a study of a group of people suffering from mental health problems who took part in the scheme.

Some of those taking part who were suffering from depression found the work helped to alleviate their symptoms and boost their confidence.

A spokesman for healthcare company Bupa said: "Quietly tending your garden or vegetable patch is a real stress-buster, helping relieve feelings of anxiety and giving you a break from the general rush of life.

"Because the work you do is mainly physical, you have a chance to think about any concerns or problems that are bothering you or just spend an hour or two of luxurious day-dreaming.

"As the results of your work will usually be quite obvious, you'll also feel a sense of accomplishment."

For more details about the Green Gym projects, call the BTCV offices on 01273 691207.