Studies now suggest what gardeners have always known; gardening is good for you! Not just eating the vegetables, but the digging of the soil, planting the seeds, pulling weeds and collecting the harvest. It’s good for the waistline, it’s good for your heart and it’s exceptionally good for your mental well-being.
Most of us know a contented person who has become synonymous with their garden. Those perennial sifters of soil that can be found happily working in their garden year after year. Maybe it’s a grandparent, a neighbor or perhaps it’s you!
Years ago one such contented-perennial-gardener-type person paused in his hoeing to give me his colorful opinion on people who paid for gym memberships and visits to a therapist, “Grow a bleeping carrot!” he said. Only he didn’t say bleeping.
While all our physical and mental health issues probably won’t be solved by growing carrots, having a garden might help more than we think. In fact, studies are sprouting up like weeds to suggest that gardeners are healthier than non-gardeners in both body and soul. On average those who grow potatoes live 14 years longer than couch potatoes. And they’re happier too.
A study done in Sweden found that those who did gardening type activities were just as healthy as those who got the recommended 150 minutes per week of moderate to vigorous activity through other means such as jogging, bicycling or working out at the gym.
Look at her go! Look at her hoe! Not only is she getting an awesome upper body workout, but she is also gaining the mental satisfaction of a weed free row of vegetables.
Those who got upwards of 30 minutes of vigorous exercise three times a week or more fared slightly better, but it should be noted that some activities such as jogging on hard pavement can wreak havoc with your joints, even while improving your cardiovascular health.
And when you’re finished you don’t get garden fresh carrots.
Gardening involves a wide range of activity without the mind numbing boredom of doing reps in a sterile setting. And the earthy smell of soil and the fragrant flowers are far preferable to being surrounded by sweaty humans.
But can a garden really make us happier? Let’s take a look.
Ten Ways Gardening Contributes to our Mental Health
1. Something to Look Forward to. Turns out spending those dark days of winter looking over seed catalogues and planning out our garden is good for us. Humans need goals, things to aspire to, something to wake up for in the morning.
2. The Nature Connection. People who make time to connect with nature are happier, more content, have fewer heart attacks and are less stressed. Gardening is a fabulous way to connect with nature. Not only are you knee-deep in vegetation, time in a garden will provide you with all kinds of opportunities to observe bees, butterflies, birds and more.
3. Exercise. Few things improve our mood like exercise. Gardening involves a wide range of motion and levels of exertion. It can be the perfect varied workout. A typical day in the garden can involve pushing a loaded wheelbarrow up a hill, packing heavy objects, hoeing, digging, bending and balancing. Best of all, you won’t get bored as all of these “exercises” are a means to an end. Instead of counting reps you are counting days to harvest or seasons to having the garden of your dreams.
4. Brain Boosting. As we age we can become less social and more housebound. A garden gives us a reason to get out of the house. Chatting with plants or birds might make you look a little senile, but it actually makes you less likely to get dementia. An independent pair of studies observed seniors in their 60s and 70s for 16 years and found that those who gardened regularly had a 36% to 47% lower risk of dementia than those who didn’t garden at all.
5. Depression Deterrent. Is it possible that a bacteria in our soil could actually cure depression? Sounds a bit far-fetched, but there could be something to it. Christopher Lowry, Ph.D., an assistant professor of integrative physiology at the University of Colorado at Boulder, conducted a study where he gave mice Mycobacterium vaccae, a harmless bacteria found in soil. He discovered that the bacteria increased serotonin levels in much the same way that antidepressant drugs are designed to do.
Is the increased stress that is so prevalent today the result from no longer getting our hands in the soil and gaining access to this natural bacteria? Something to consider.
6. Altruism. Gardeners are givers by nature. Extra produce finds its way onto neighbours doorsteps or through the doors of the local food bank. Pieces of perennials are cheerfully divided with a sharp shovel and sent on their way to new homes. Giving is linked to happiness and mental well-being hence the adage “happiness is best kept when it is given away”. People who think of others are happier and healthier than those who only consider their own well-being.
7. Socializing. Studies show that having an active social network can be important to mental health. If you are a bit shy or new to a community, a garden can be the perfect vehicle for cultivating friendships. Join a local garden club, help out a cause such as “grow a row” for your local food bank or simply prepare to meet your neighbors as you work in your front yard.
8. Family. Like socializing, having close bonds with your family contributes to overall mental health for both adults and children. A garden is a great place to bond with family. Who doesn’t like to play in the dirt? Almost any life lesson can be taught while observing the natural processes of nature and children will grow up with the confidence of knowing how to provide for themselves and just how delicious vegetables can really be.
9. Spiritual Practice. No matter what your beliefs are, spending time in a garden can provide you with much clarity and joy. The simple faith of planting a seed, the grace of harvest, the beauty of a flower, the complex interaction of insects and plants and the never-ending circle of life from seed to plant to compost and back again can provide us with the peace, connection and understanding our seeking minds crave.
10. The Harvest. Last but not least, is the harvest. Yes there will be years the cabbage worms infest your Brassica crop and all your tomatoes are lost to frost, but there will always be something for your basket. Organic produce, flowers for your vase and moving on from your failures will all help to make you healthy, happy and wise. Except with gardening there are no failures since all so-called “failures” end up in the compost bin where they turn back into the rich soil our garden needs.
However, if your garden is so big it requires more time than you have to spend, it will simply become one more thing to be stressed about, and that won’t help you at all. Especially if you end up meeting the neighbors while watering the flowers minus your pants.
How much time does your garden need? An overly simplistic rule of thumb is to allow one hour a week per 32 square feet (a 4 x 8 foot garden space). Some might need more time and others will need less. So much depends on what you plant, how particular you are and how fast you move.
Things like access to water should be considered. A garden with drip irrigation built-in will obviously require less time than one that needs to be hand watered, but then again, it won’t offer the fitness benefits of carrying heavy cans of water. A heavily mulched garden will have fewer weeds and need less water than one that isn’t…and so on.
Only you can decide on the size and type of garden that suits you and the sort of time and energy you want to spend in it. The best advice is to grow slow and take time to smell the roses. Literally.
And here’s a final mental health tip. Remember that gardening, like life, is a journey not a destination. May yours provide you with a harvest of many joyous moments along the way!
This book, originally penned by Frances Duncan in 1913 and then republished by Patricia Lanza author of Lasagna Gardening , is a case in point of the healing powers of a garden. Titled My Garden Doctor it is well worth a read.
As is the book and method Patricia Lanza is famous for…Lasagna Gardening.