Gardening is a lifelong practice that provides countless mental and physical health benefits.
My grandfather turned 81 this year. His has been a life of rich variety, but no matter how his circumstances have changed over the years he has always held onto his love of gardening. Some of my earliest memories are of being pushed around his vegetable patch in a wheelbarrow, a delightfully bumpy journey through rows of succulent strawberries, bountiful beans, and gnarled and knotted carrots that looked more like creatures from the deep than the clinically straight vegetables you buy in a grocery store.
My grandad can often be found with muddy hands and a beaming smile, digging, planting, and weeding in his allotment. He has an almost encyclopedic knowledge of both flora and fauna (Latin names and all). If asked, he will happily tell you that he has gardening to thank for many things—physical strength, a healthy diet, and the busy social life that comes from being a long-term resident of an allotment garden in the suburbs of Windsor, UK.
Recent studies into the life-enhancing benefits of gardening have fortified anecdotal evidence like my grandfather’s with solid data. In fact, research into the psychological benefits of gardening has been recently channeled into concrete treatment plans for patients suffering from depression—with excellent results.
A Cure for SAD
It has long been documented that people are happier during a sunny summer than in the darker, colder seasons.
The English national treasure and presenter of BBC’s Gardeners’ World, Monty Don, has talked openly of his struggles with SAD and depression. Monty says that one of the greatest tools for maintaining his mental health is gardening in the great outdoors. “Being outside in every weather and every season connects you to something bigger than yourself; it connects you to a rhythm of life!”
Though this rhythm can bring an emotional slump in the winter, the promise of spring becomes all the sweeter. As the trees bloom and the flowers begin to poke through the soil after their winter slumber, a new hope and a deeper joy grows with them.
By stepping outside in all seasons, you can soak up whatever sun is there. This is bound to be a tonic, even on the darkest days.
Increases Life Satisfaction
I will always remember the pride I felt the first time I served my family a salad made entirely from ingredients I had grown myself.
One survey-based in the United States indicated that gardeners are more likely to report higher levels of life satisfaction than those who did not garden. They also reported increased zest for life, resolution and fortitude, congruence between desired and achieved goals; high physical, psychological and social self-concept; and a happy optimistic mood.
The benefits of growing your own food can ripple out farther than you might think!
Provides A Sense of Community
My grandfather has allotment friendships stretching back 15 years—these friends have been incredibly valuable walking partners for him during the difficulties of lockdown. More and more groups are taking notice of the social side of gardening, and the result has been an increase in community garden projects.
Community garden projects are increasingly (and effectively) being used to treat loneliness and depression. In 2002, the Centre for Family and Child Research wrote that “the reported benefits of social and therapeutic horticulture include increased self-esteem and self-confidence, the development of horticultural, social and work skills … an increased sense of general well-being, and the opportunity for social interaction and the development of independence.”
This sense of community that gardening provides can really lift spirits and provide gardeners with much-needed companionship, especially during difficult periods.
Moderate movement of the kind that gardening requires has repeatedly been found to increase mental wellbeing. In 2013, researchers Robert Stanton and Peter Reaburn found that moderate exercise can be beneficial in the treatment of depression, and there have been many other studies that come to similar conclusions.
Connects You to Nature
Gardening allows you to be intimately involved with natural cycles whose reliable rhythm predates us and will beat on long after we have gone. This can help give a sense of perspective—mother nature is bigger than our problems, and more resilient than we can imagine.
Helping a fragile seedling grow into a giant sunflower, or watching buds bloom into beautiful roses, can make you aware of the possibility of renewal. You do not need a lot of experience or a big space to reap the healing benefits of gardening. By helping plants to grow, you can nurture growth and change in yourself. For those struggling with their mental health, this can be a powerful message.
Findings like these may not surprise lifelong gardeners like my grandfather, but they can inspire the rest of us to step outside, push our hands into the soil, and begin a journey towards a closer relationship with the outside world. Who knows what else might grow in the process?
Sydenham Garden Project
Sydenham Garden in South London has been putting these findings into practice for almost 20 years. Its aim is “bringing together co-workers with different degrees of mental and physical ill health, volunteers and members of the local community to work together ... [enabling] people to improve their quality of life, social interaction and physical and mental health in a supportive community environment.”
Sydenham Garden is weaving together the physical benefits of gardening, the psychologically therapeutic power of the great outdoors, and a blossoming community. Through this they are sowing the seeds of healing, helping people nurture the roots of their mental wellbeing, and slowly pruning away the thorns of mental illness. Their holistic approach and great results show how effective the healing power of nature really is.
Aldridge, J., & Sempik, J. (2002). Social and therapeutic horticulture: evidence and messages from research.
Magnusson, A., & Boivin, D. (2003). Seasonal Affective Disorder: An Overview. Chronobiology International, 20(2), 189-207. doi:10.1081/CBI-120019310
Stanton R, Reaburn P. Exercise and the treatment of depression: a review of the exercise program variables. J Sci Med Sport. 2014 Mar;17(2):177-82. doi: 10.1016/j.jsams.2013.03.010. Epub 2013 Apr 18. PMID: 23602562.
Waliczek, T.M., Zajicek, J.M., & Lineberger, R.D. (2005). The Influence of Gardening Activities on Consumer Perceptions of Life Satisfaction, HortScience HortSci, 40(5), 1360-1365. Retrieved Apr 23, 2021, from https://journals.ashs.org/hortsci/view/journals/hortsci/40/5/article-p1360.xml