It is no secret that gardening is good for your health. By growing your own food, you ensure access to healthy, locally grown options free of pesticides and other chemicals (as long as you don’t use them). Gardening is also a work out, classified by the Center for Disease Control as a moderately intense physical activity that can help reduce the risk of obesity, high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke.
But did you know that gardening can have mental health benefits, too?
A 2010 study showed that patients with clinical depression in who participated in routine gardening activities experienced a reduced depression and increased attention capacity that lasted months after the program ended. A 2006 study showed that gardening on a daily basis reduced dementia risk factors by 36 percent.
“It’s calming because it involves all of your senses,” said Erin Backus, president of the Northeast Horticultural Therapy Network, who works using gardening as a therapeutic tool at psychiatric hospitals and transitional living programs. “Basically helps to give your brain a break.”
The connection that gardening provides with the natural world is the source of many of its mental health benefits. A 2010 study shows that 30 minutes of gardening decreases more stress than 30 minutes of indoor reading. Mycobacterium vaccae, a bacterium in soil, has also been found to trigger the release of serotonin, which in turn improves mood and possibly even brain function in both cancer patients and mice.
“Nature works,” said Matthew Wichrowski, editor of the Journal of Therapeutic Horticulture put out by the American Horticultural Therapy Association. “It’s been found to be very therapeutic.”
Part of the mental health benefit also comes from the physical activity associated gardening. Exercise releases endorphins that help mitigate the effects of depression and anxiety.
“When you get out and weed and dig, those large muscle movements, especially with the digging, release those endorphins in your brain,” said Christine Capra, program manager at the Horticultural Therapy Institute. “That part of the gardening is beneficial in that way.”
The positive mental health impacts of gardening have led to a rise in the popularity of horticultural therapy, a guided practice of using gardening to help manage mental health issues.
“[Gardening] is something very real, so that’s motivating,” Capra said. “You’re using the modality of growing plants to somehow better the life of that client.”
A 2014 review of horticultural therapy research concluded that although the existing research is insufficient to say anything definitive about the mental health benefits of gardening, horticultural therapy may be an effective treatment for mental and behavioral disorders such as dementia, schizophrenia, depression and terminal-care for cancer.
The benefits could be anything from giving more self-esteem and more confidence to a sense of peace and clarity,” Capra said. “Gardening shows the whole process shows you a lifecycle from its beginning. There are a whole lot of metaphors for that growth in the mental health setting that become a way to heal.”
Even if you do not have access to a horticultural therapist, these experts have some tips on how to maximize the benefit of gardening to your mental health. “I think it’s about consistency,” Capra said. She recommends maintaining regularity in your gardening habit — for both the health of your plants but also so you can reap the mental health benefits.
Focusing on the task at hand can also help to maximize the centering effect of gardening. “I encourage people to try to stay present in the moment,” Backus said. “That skill can be challenging sometimes. Focus your senses, take a deep breath, and stay present.”