The songbirds returned about a month early here in south-central Wisconsin, and in honor of spring, I’m updating a post from last year about gardening’s mental health benefits.
I hope this spring brings you fresh energy and many happy hours outside on — and in! — the earth.
When you’re stressed, when you go to the garden, you feel different.
It helps you hold onto life.
– Southeast Toronto resident, 2007 study on health benefits of community urban gardening
Summer’s finally here in south-central Wisconsin, ushered in by one of the coldest springs we’ve had in years. Though I grumbled about trudging through snow flurries on May 1, our garden loved the cool, wet weather. Now, in mid-June, Red Russian kale stands tall in raised beds, its smooth curled leaves jostling with green cabbages, Di Cicco broccoli and Early Snowball cauliflower. The heirloom tomatoes I grew from seed back in February are beginning to flower, and pea vines climb a trellis so fast I swear I can see them move.
When I’m in my garden, life’s troubles crumble away with the rich black soil between my fingers. I’m fully in my body, out of my head, my worries banished. My garden is my church, my time there sacred.
We 21st-century humans so often find ourselves adrift in technologies that wall us off even as they keep us connected. Our gardens are antidotes to that, places where we abandon the filters of cell phones and computers and contact life directly, sensually, touching and smelling plants and bugs and worms and the billions of microorganisms that make garden soil so rich. Biologist E.O. Wilson spoke to these feelings with his biophilia hypothesis, the idea that humans have an “innately emotional affiliation… to other living organisms.”
While far scarcer than studies on psychotherapy or psychiatric medications, research on gardening’s health benefits has found that working with plants can ease mental suffering. There’s even a term for this process — horticultural therapy. As we tend our gardens, sowing seeds, watering, pulling weeds, pruning and, months later, harvesting, so too we sow seeds of patience, hope and optimism within ourselves. A 2008 paper in Nursing Times called such hope “an intrinsic requirement of gardening,” and key to how this activity heals.
Gardening as a therapy for mental illness hasn’t been thoroughly researched, but what has been published shows promise. A paper from 2011 summarized two studies in which patients with depression who gardened for 12 weeks felt better at the end of the intervention and three months later (note that both studies lacked control groups, so we don’t know how much the patients might have improved on their own). In the United Kingdom, a program called Rethink Green Growers helps people with mental illness ranging from mild depression to schizophrenia grow their own food on land plots in Wiltshire, Somerset and Dorset. The program organizers say gardening not only gets the patients out of bed and into the sunshine, but helps them connect with each other and eat healthier diets — which, in turn, further stabilizes their moods.
Horticultural therapy isn’t only being used as adjunctive treatment for mental illness. A 2005 study found gardening reduced stress in patients undergoing cardiac rehabilitation, and a study of patients with dementia found that gardening twice weekly for six weeks helped them interact more with others.
I’ll sign off for now — my garden beckons. How has gardening helped you feel better? Please share your experiences! (And read more from a wonderful blog called The Storied Mind!)