In a matter of steps, Mike Williams can go from house to farm to forest.
The Papillion man has spent nearly 25 years transforming his backyard into a garden sanctuary. The space, about one-third acre, features a large garden bed and about 40 trees.
Williams, 58, took up gardening as a way to unwind after work.
“It was an outlet,” he said. “It was sort of therapeutic to leave the job and then go work in the yard and get connected back with nature.”
After taking up the hobby, Williams noticed work-related stress fade away. His diet improved, and the garden sanctuary became a source of entertainment.
Williams spent more than 30 years working as a civilian with the Department of Defense. For the majority of that time, he was a military analyst, focusing on the military capabilities of other countries. The job could be stressful.
“I needed something to connect myself with things that are growing instead of things that get destroyed,” Williams said.
Gardening can provide a mental and physical break from the daily work routine, said Karen Bermel, a licensed mental health professional at Bergan Mercy Medical Center in Omaha.
“Frequently our work life is computers and phones and texting,” Bermel said. “The beauty of gardening is that it really puts us in touch with nature.”
Several studies have shown that gardening can reduce stress, boost mood and benefit brain health. A 2010 study published in the Journal of Health Psychology showed that gardening significantly decreased stress levels. After completing a stressful task, participants were assigned to 30 minutes of outdoor gardening or indoor reading. Both tasks led to decreased stress levels, but the decrease — and reports of a positive mood — was more significant in the gardening group.
For eight years, Williams and his wife, Joni, lived in Virginia where he worked before moving back to Nebraska in 1992. He was shocked by how few trees his home state had compared to the East Coast. So he joined the Papillion Tree Board, started watching “Backyard Farmer” and got to work planting in his own yard. He has since joined the Douglas-Sarpy County Extension Office as a gardening intern to learn more about his hobby.
Over the years, Williams planted a variety of trees around his home. In between the trees, he added shrubs, perennials and native grasses.
About four years ago, he added a large vegetable garden to the yard.
“I had a V8 moment and decided it was time to start growing things I could eat,” Williams said.
In addition to tomatoes, he grows just about “anything you would like to put on your plate.” The garden fare includes peppers, cucumbers, lettuce, radishes and chard. Several trees and shrubs provide food, too, such as currants, chokeberries, hickory nuts and hazelnuts.
The ease of having fresh veggies on hand has allowed Williams to adopt a healthier diet. He also made the choice to become a pescatarian, eating no meat but fish.
“Having my own garden back there, I can go and pick things that are fresh and walk right to the dinner table and make a meal with the vegetables I have in the backyard,” Williams said.
His favorite option is a mixed green salad with lettuce, kale, chard, cucumbers and tomatoes. Anything he doesn’t have in the garden, Williams supplements from the grocery store.
When he was working at Offutt Air Force Base, Williams would devote his weekends to yard work. Now, he’s out there daily.
“Gardening is a constant process. It’s kind of a way of life,” Williams said. “I could spend eight to 10 hours working in the garden and not even know the day went by.”
Planting trees, shrubs and vegetables has been a stress-reliever for Williams. It has also been a rewarding hobby to see a seed or small plant grow. And observing the insects, birds and small animals that visit the yard has become a fun pastime.
“It gives you an opportunity to step away from those things that are more stressful in your life,” Williams said. “There’s that aesthetic appeal. It sort of takes you away from that rigorous day-to-day work and puts you more in touch with nature.”
Gardening is a good source of physical activity, too, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The organization reports that active people are less likely to be obese or have high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis, heart disease, stroke, depression, colon cancer and premature death.
Williams said he stays in good shape from the hobby, though he rides his bike, too. In addition to regular work in the garden, he turns over the soil every fall, and he often prunes shrubs and trees.
“There’s a lot of digging and shoveling and moving and planting,” Williams said.
Being outside is something Williams enjoys. For nearly 30 years, he worked in an office with no windows.
“He likes the fresh air,” Joni said. “I think it’s therapeutic to have something grow out of the dirt.”
Williams’ wife said she doesn’t have a green thumb; she’s “not really a yard person.” In fact, she has had a few plants die on her.
But she enjoys the hard work her husband has put into transforming their yard into another world.
Tucked in between the trees and grasses are pathways, decorative statues and seating areas. The yard has become a sanctuary for the Williams family.
“If you walked into our backyard, you would never know you’re in Papillion and in a subdivision,” Joni Williams said.