Gardening is one of the most pleasurable experiences for Gillian Aldrich, 42, who started growing vegetables in her backyard some time ago!
Gillian is now working on planting a bed of hydrangeas, butterfly bushes, rose Campion, and—her favorite—pale-pink hardy geraniums. As she digs in the garden, her kids often play around her, sometimes taking a break to pick fresh strawberries.
Instead of just watching them, Aldrich is playing along. She says: “When you sit at a desk all day, there’s something about literally putting your hands in the dirt, digging and actually creating something that’s really beautiful. There’s something about just being out there that feels kind of elemental.”
Aldrich isn’t the only one who feels this way. Many gardeners view their hobby as the perfect antidote to the modern world, a way of reclaiming some of the intangible things we’ve lost in our “dirt-free” existence.
The sensory experience of gardening “allows people to connect to this primal state,” says James Jiler, the founder and executive director of Urban GreenWorks. “A lot of people understand that experience. They may not be able to put it into words, but they understand what’s happening.“
Working in the garden has other, less spiritual rewards too
In addition to being a source of fresh, healthy produce, gardening can ease stress effects, keep you supple, and even improve your temper!
Here are just several ways gardening can benefit your physical and mental health:
Stress relief: A recent study in the Netherlands suggests that gardening can fight stress even better than other leisure activities. After having a stressful task, 2 groups of people were instructed to either read indoors or do some gardening. Afterwards, the group that gardened reported being in a much better mood than the reading group, and they also had lower levels of the stress hormone – cortisol.
“We live in a society where we’re just maxing ourselves out all the time in terms of paying attention,” says Andrea Faber Taylor, Ph.D., a horticulture instructor and researcher in the Landscape and Human Health Laboratory at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “Humans have a finite capacity for the kind of directed attention required by cell phones and email and the like,” Taylor says, “and when that capacity gets used up we tend to become irritable, error-prone, distractible, and stressed out.”
Fortunately this so-called “attention fatigue” appears to be reversible. Following a theory, first suggested by University of Michigan researchers in the 1980s, Taylor and other experts have argued that we can “refill” ourselves by engaging in “involuntary attention,” an effortless form of attention that we use to enjoy nature.
“Trading your BlackBerry for blackberry bushes is an excellent way to fight stress and attention fatigue,” Taylor says, as “the rhythms of the natural environment and the repetitive, soothing nature of many gardening tasks are all sources of effortless attention.”
“The breeze blows, things get dew on them, things flower; the sounds, the smells,” says Taylor, herself a home gardener. “All of these draw on that form of attention.”
Better rational health: The effortless attention of gardening may even help improve depression symptoms.
In a study conducted in Norway, people who had been diagnosed with depression, persistent low mood, or bipolar II disorder spent 6 hours a week growing plants and vegetables. After 3 months, half of the participants had experienced a detectable improvement in their symptoms. What’s more, their mood continued to be better 3 months after the gardening program was closed.
The researchers suggest that the amusement of gardening may have been enough to jolt some of the participants out of their boredoms, but some experts have a more radical explanation for how gardening might beat depression.
Christopher Lowry, Ph.D., an assistant professor of integrative physiology at the University of Colorado at Boulder, has been injecting mice with Mycobacterium vaccae, a harmless bacteria commonly found in soil, and has found that they increase the release and metabolism of serotonin in parts of the brain that control cognitive function and mood—much like serotonin-boosting antidepressant drugs do.
“By reintroducing these bacteria in the environment, they may help to alleviate some of these problems,” Lowry says.
Training: Gardening gets you out in the fresh air and sunshine—and it also gets your blood going. “There are lots of different movements in gardening, so you get some exercise benefits out of it as well,” says William Maynard, the community garden program coordinator for the City of Sacramento’s Department of Parks and Recreation.
Digging, planting, weeding, and other repetitive garden tasks that require strength or stretching are excellent forms of low-impact exercise, especially for people who find more vigorous exercise a challenge, such as those who are older, have disabilities, or suffer from chronic conditions.
As a pleasurable and purpose-oriented outdoor activity, gardening has another advantage over other conventional forms of exercise: folks are more likely to stick with it and do it frequently!
“It’s not just exercise for exercise itself, which can become tedious,” says Katherine Brown, the executive director of the Southside Community Land Trust, a nonprofit that supports community gardens and other urban agriculture in and around Providence, R.I. “It’s exercise that has a context, that reinforces the limberness of your limbs and the use of your hands. You’ve got a motivation for why you want to grip. You’re not just gripping a ball, you want to pull a weed.”
Brain health: Some research suggests that the bodily activity associated with gardening can help lower the risk of developing dementia.
Two separate studies that followed people in their discreet ages found that those who gardened regularly had from 36% to 47% lower risk of developing dementia than non-gardeners, even when a selection of other health factors were taken into consideration. These findings are hardly definitive, but they suggest that the combination of physical and mental activity involved in gardening may have a positive influence on the mind.
And for people who are already going through a mental decline, even just walking in a garden may be curative. Many residential homes for people with dementia now have “wander” or “memory” gardens on their grounds, so that residents with Alzheimer’s disease or other cognitive problems can walk through them without getting lost.
How to get started: You don’t need a big backyard or a green thumb to benefit from gardening. If you have very little space or experience, you can start out with just a few houseplants, or you could even try gardening in containers.
End note: The hubbub of the garden place is said to promote relaxation and reduce stress at all ages!