Science now backs up what gardeners and plant lovers have known all along: Gardening is good for you. It makes you feel better and it’s therapeutic.
As a kid I had zero interest in gardening. Whenever my mom would make me pull weeds with her, or pick blueberries, I whined as if I were being punished. As an adult, I can’t get enough of gardening. I love it. It’s something that helps me maintain a sense of inner harmony and a great way to de-stress. (Pulling weeds is more therapeutic than I ever knew and now feels like a meditation.)
According to an article from the Royal College of Physicians, a Japanese study showed that just looking at plants “altered EEG recordings and reduced stress, fear, anger, and sadness, as well as reducing blood pressure, pulse rate and muscle tension.”
Nature is Healing
The April 27, 1984, issue of Science magazine published a landmark study from Roger S. Ulrich, a pioneer in the field of therapeutic environments at Texas A&M University. Patients recovering from gallbladder surgery who looked at nature, even if it was simply a poster of nature, had better recovery time and less complaints than those who looked at a brick wall. Those looking at nature (or an image thereof) also took less pain medication during their recovery.
There are more recent studies that have looked at the influence of nature on patients recovering from surgery. In the late 1990’s, a study from Sweden was shared at the Culture, Health, and the Arts World Symposium in England. 160 patients recovering from heart surgery were asked to look at either an abstract artwork, a landscape image, or no picture at all.
The landscape visual helped lower anxiety and the patients required less pain meds. They also spent one day less in the hospital than the other patients in the control group. Patients who looked at the abstract art actually felt sicker. They were more anxious and took more pain killers. The study showed that they would have been better seeing no art at all.
Studies continue to be published on the therapeutic qualities of natural landscapes on patients. Urban landscapes and other images have still not shown to be as affective to healing as nature and natural landscapes.
Soil is Healing
The Journal of Neuroscience, JNeurosci, shares a 2007 study finding that a bacteria in the soil is linked with increased serotonin production in the brain. This means that gardening could possibly increase our serotonin levels, which can help those with depression and improve overall mood in general.
Healthy soil has Mycobacterium vaccae, which has been proven to alter brain chemistry similar to antidepressants. These bacteria activate the release of serotonin in the brain, which is the “happiness hormone”.
Horticultural therapy works with plants and plant-based activity for the purpose of human healing and rehabilitation. This kind of therapy became more accepted in the 1940’s and 50’s when used to support hospitalized war veterans in their rehabilitation.
Dr. Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and acknowledged to be the “Father of American Psychiatry,” was the first to document the positive effect working in a garden had on patients with mental illness. At his Philadelphia clinic, he offered horticultural therapy as one of the treatment options.
The American Horticultural Therapy Association (AHTA) offers the support of horticultural therapists who work with patients to “help improve memory, cognitive abilities, task initiation, language skills and socialization.” According to their site, horticultural therapy can also help “strengthen muscles and improve coordination, balance, and endurance. In vocational horticultural therapy settings, people learn to work independently, problem solve, and follow directions.”
Today, Horticultural Therapy is used in schools, hospitals, prisons, camps for troubled teens, and other communities to support a wide range of individuals with various challenges and rehabilitation needs.
It’s even used in retirement homes as a way to offer a safe, non-threatening environment for cognitive engagement, especially for those with various types of dementia. For elders who might be losing their sense of autonomy, gardening offers them a sense of control over their environment.
Caring for and nurturing a plant, or plants, from a seed to full maturity offers a sense of accomplishment, regardless of background or current challenges.
Gardening With Kids
Children receive benefits from gardening that supports their growth and connection. Gardening can help with their perceptual, motor, and physical development while using tools and practicing balance as they walk across grass and paths. Cognition, language, and communication are also helped as children learn to recognize the life cycles of plants and gain awareness of the sizes, shapes and weights of different seeds, plants and produce. Their vocabulary is increased with the experience and working in a garden offers many new approaches to learning.
Becoming invested in the life of a plant that they are tending, children’s social and emotional development is supported. Growing a plant in a pot is a wonderful independent task for kids as well.
Gardening is for Everyone
I love hiking and being in nature, but there’s something about getting my hands in the soil and growing plants that uplifts in every possible way. Plus, the gift of eating and sharing what I’ve grown with others goes beyond what science can measure. My food and flower gardens give me a sense of connection with the Earth, with myself and even with my neighbors.
Planting something is a simple yet potent way to bring the healing power of nature into your life for healing and wellness, in a tangible and interactive way. Even if the only way you can grow plants is indoors in containers, that’s a great place to start.
You can also surround yourself with images of nature. Your screensaver can be set to a natural landscape that you love, so that you see it during your workday.
You may not have space for a garden or even a green thumb. But as scientific studies increase, there is more evidence to show that simply being around plants and green spaces is beneficial to our mental and physical health.
Bloom Post is a freelance writer, ceremonialist, teacher, and author of the books Shaman’s Toolbox: Practical Tools for Powerful Transformation and Plant Spirit Totems. For more information: www.BloomPost.com