Gardening Therapy: Healing Mind, Body and Spirit in the YardApr 28, 2023 ● By Sheryl DeVore
Gardening outdoors adds color and texture to yards and neighborhoods, and with the right plants, attracts pollinators, whose numbers are declining. It also can improve human health. The exercise, sunshine and fresh air promote mental and physical health, and so does our contact with soil microbes and the harmonious patterns of nature.
“Being in the sunlight is a great way to get vitamin D, which is linked to mood and well-being. We spend so much time inside, where our perspective and thoughts can close around us. Getting outdoors can improve mindfulness and the sense of being in the moment, especially when we leave our phones inside,” says Pennsylvania-based psychologist Seth J. Gillihan, author of Mindful Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: A Simple Path to Healing, Hope and Peace.
In a study of the health and well-being benefits of allotment gardening published in the Journal of Public Health, researchers measured the mood, self-esteem and general health markers of people given plots for gardening versus those that didn’t garden at all. The scientists found that the gardeners displayed significantly better self-esteem and experienced less depression and fatigue. The top three reasons participants gave for enjoying their time tinkering in the soil were: being outdoors and having contact with nature (70 percent); feeling a sense of achievement (50 percent); and having the opportunity for restoration and stress relief (35 percent).
Cultivating our outdoor space also gives us a healthy perspective, helping us to accept our limitations and better understand our place in nature. “It’s easy to see in the garden how many things are outside of our control, such as rain, temperature and pests. We can do our best, but at some point, we need to let go,” Gillihan notes, adding that learning to let go is a lesson we can apply to other aspects of our lives.
When he faced a long-term illness coupled with depression, Gillihan built raised garden beds and planted herbs and vegetables. “I knew I needed to get more involved in something that would bring me a sense of reward and engagement. All of that creative effort really helped to bring me back to life,” he recalls. “In a garden, you’re exercising, but it’s not a repetitive thing like running, so that can make it more fun and seem like less of a task.”
“Digging, walking, carrying and squatting circulate our blood and release dopamine and endorphins in our brains,” says Karen Hugg, author of Leaf Your Troubles Behind: How to Destress and Grow Happiness Through Plants. “We feel more energetic and happier. Similarly, puttering in the garden or designing an ornamental bed is really about playing, and playing is integral to mental health.”
By merely observing greenery we can find peace and clarity. “A tree’s subdividing branches or the whorled arrangement of leaves are patterns that can calm the nervous system. If you look at plants during even a five-minute break, either indoors or out, you’re practicing a kind of relaxation therapy,” Hugg affirms.
A little bit of earth under our fingernails is good for us. “When you get your hands dirty, there are beneficial microbes in the soil that improve your health and well-being,” says Charlie Hall, professor of horticultural studies and department chair at Texas A&M University, who has researched the physiological, psychological and social benefits of plants.
According to Hall, horticultural therapy reduces stress and anxiety, enhances memory and attention span and can improve quality of life for those with physical, mental or cognitive challenges. Citing the example of disabled adults helping to run a garden center and greenhouse at the Brookwood Community in Brookshire, Texas, he notes, “Working together in a garden builds a sense of belonging. Even those who are not physically able to participate in those activities benefit. Just being in the garden can dramatically reduce the levels of the stress hormone cortisol.”
Gardening Tips to Improve Human and Planetary Health
- Choose a modest space outdoors or purchase small containers.
- Keep it simple and start small with just a few plants.
- Read books to learn about plant needs by region.
- Talk to nurseries that sell native species.
- Think of the garden as a refuge, a place to smell flowers and watch plants thrive.
- View gardening as a fun exercise.
- Join a community garden to cultivate flowers and vegetables in a social setting.
- Grow houseplants, herbs and lettuces to bring in the outdoors.
- Volunteer at a nonprofit that propagates vegetables for food pantries.
Sheryl DeVore is a frequent contributor to national and regional publications and has authored six books on science, health and nature. Learn more at SherylDeVore.wordpress.com.