The Therapeutic Effects of Gardening
Ever immersed yourself in gardening, starting off stressed or seriously aggravated after a bad day … possibly seeing who or what is making your life miserable in those invasive plants laying ruin to your cultivated oasis of fragrant blooms and tasty veg?
As you rip and tug those weeds out and smooth the soil back over, you feel all that stress and aggro ebbing away. And once you’re finished, how satisfied and productive you feel, and oh so much calmer.
While gardening is physical, it’s equally beneficial for our mental health and sense of calm. The exercise involved in gardening leads to an increase in serotonin and dopamine in the brain, which boosts our happiness. Levels of cortisol, a hormone which makes us stressed, are also lowered.
“I believe strongly in the therapeutic value of spending time in nature and this includes time spent gardening,” says Maxine Crawford, M.A. Ph.D. Candidate, Psychology Department, UBC Kelowna.
“There are multiple theories about why we feel better when we’re close to nature. They include Biophilia which says humans have an innate connection to nature; Attention Restoration Theory which says nature allows us to truly unwind and mentally relax; and Stress Reduction Theory which says we are genetically attuned to environments that can support our existence and so we relax in nature more than we do in built environments.”
The physical exercise component of gardening will improve a person’s mood just as exercise in more traditional ways does. She adds that research supports the idea that spending time in cultivated or wild nature increases positive moods and reduces negative moods.
“If a person is gardening, it may be that they are more mindful of the plants surrounding them and therefore they have stronger benefits.”
Crawford notes that horticultural therapy has been shown to be effective for individuals with mental health issues and for the elderly.
Not only does gardening have cognitive, physical, and emotional benefits, Crawford points to the social connections.
“Research on well-being shows that time spent with others is important for an individual’s emotional health. When people are in their own garden or a community garden, they often have social encounters with other people in their neighbourhood. This helps bolster an individual’s well-being.”
In continuing its commitment to environmental initiatives, all students at Ecole Dickinsfield can be involved in the school garden, whether planting seeds, transplanting, watering or weeding.
“The garden is wonderfully therapeutic,” states says Grade 3/4 teacher Kitty Cochrane.
“By being outside engaged in nature, it helps with mindfulness and reduces stress. It helps students build upon their natural curiosity. They learn the joy of growing their own food, the magic of watching a seed become an edible plant and a respect for the farmers who feed us. They feel empowered as responsible leaders and are proud they are helping create less waste and carbon footprint by growing food.”
The other part of gardening is physical activity.
As an Apple School, Cochrane adds, “We encourage active living along with healthy eating, and as we lift, carry, bend, dig, pull, and gather dirt, compost and plants, we are all getting meaningful exercise.”
Sandra Campbell has been a mainstay at Helen Pacholko Park since 1989 when it opened, usually tending her plot and the children’s garden.
“Gardening gets me outdoors with a purpose,” she explains. “It can be a solitary activity where you get lost in your own thoughts. You can hear the world going on around you, but you have set yourself aside for a while.”
Campbell also recognizes the therapeutic value of gardening, citing two of the community gardeners: One fighting cancer just sat on the bench and stared at her garden all summer long. Another was so mad at her diagnosis that her shovel flew dirt in all directions until she was done.
Listing other benefits of gardening – social, sensory and emotional experiences –
Campbell notes, the children give her the most pleasure.
“Last fall, six-year-old Carina was beside herself with excitement as she pulled her carrots and dug out her potatoes,” recalls Campbell. “She said ‘Thank you, Sandra. I said, ‘Don’t thank me, you did all the work.’ Still excited, she exclaimed, ‘Thank you world.’
“That says it all.”