Whenever I feel down or stressed I have learnt to head straight into the garden. Putting my hands in soil, watching the bees harvest pollen from lavender flowers, picking spinach for dinner all act as remarkable antidotes to the wear and tear of everyday life. No matter how frustrated or low I feel when I pick up my trowel, I invariably end up feeling more steady and content after a bout of gardening. Time slows down, as the rhythm of weeding, planting, watering and harvesting calms my mind and stretches my body.
There is now a lot of evidence for the beneficial effects of gardening on all aspects of wellbeing, especially mental health. A comprehensive survey of research into the healing effects of gardening and horticulture therapy programs demonstrate multiple mental health benefits including decreased depression and anxiety, improved cognitive function, and greater life satisfaction. In other words we feel, think and live better when we care for plants.
There are wide ranging factors behind this healing effect. Being in green spaces reduces mental fatigue and stress, while the physical exercise of gardening decreases cortisol (the stress hormone) while increasing endorphins, serotonin and dopamine (mood elevating neurotransmitters). Recent research also shows that increased exposure to soil microbiomes can strengthen gardeners’ gut biomes which in turn strengthens mental wellbeing. On top of this there are social benefits for many gardeners through increased interaction with neighbours and the community, as well as heightened awareness of the natural world.
To receive the benefits of gardening we don’t have to undertake large projects. A recent study in England asked people to care for two planters filled with ornamental plants placed in their front yard over a period of year. This small amount of gardening decreased participants’ stress levels by 6%, the same result as might be expected from eight weekly mindfulness sessions. Another research finding was that after just 3 months of gardening, the number of people who had healthy daily cortisol patterns increased from 24% to 53%. The gardeners also told researchers that their new gardens had a positive influence on their outlook on life, gave them a place to relax and increased their motivation to improve the local environment.
In her recent book The Well Gardened Mind psychiatrist Sue Stuart Smith explores the considerable and consistent therapeutic benefits of gardening in prisons, hospitals, community health settings and war veterans programs. She writes “When we sow a seed, we plant a narrative of future possibility. It is an action of hope.” It is little wonder that so many of us raced to buy seeds and seedlings when COVID19 hit. Not only was this a response to a sudden heightened awareness about food security, it was also an expression of deeply embedded instinct within us to create and nurture life, at a time of heightened awareness of vulnerability and death.
Gardening strengthens our relationship to the living world that creates us. It also helps us to tune in to the needs of body, mind and soul. Incorporating gardening into our lives and children’s lives lays the foundations for emotional resilience and increased delight in the world. So this year enjoy the benefits of tending to a veggie patch, window boxes, a community garden or a patch of bush. As you care and connect for your plants, you will also be caring for yourself, your family and your neighbourhood.