Deborah R. Huso | August, 2012
The health benefits of gardening extend well beyond growing and eating fresh produce. Being in touch with nature can decrease your susceptibility to everything from depression to heart disease.
For those of us who are fortunate enough to have space for vegetable and flower gardens, the idea that gardening offers health benefits is no surprise. Just the simple task of plunging hands into moist soil, inhaling fresh air, and watching something grow and mature under the cultivation of one’s own touch is enough to soothe many of the work day’s stresses away.
Even the ancient Mesopotamians and Persians knew this, cultivating the first designed and healing gardens in recorded history. In the early 1800s, medical practitioners began to praise the benefits of gardening in treating psychological illnesses, and Dr. Benjamin Rush wrote about gardening’s healing benefits in his 1812 book “Medical Inquiries and Observations Upon Diseases of the Mind.”
Today horticultural therapy, as it is known in the medical world, has been proven in formal studies to alleviate depression, decrease anxiety, increase self-esteem, slow heart rates, improve immune system response, and improve overall physical health. In fact, gardening programs have even demonstrated the ability to decrease recidivism rates among criminals. And researchers at the The Sage Colleges in Troy, N.Y., noted recently that Mycobacterium vaccae, which is a common and natural bacteria found in soil, decreases anxiety and increases learning capacity in mice, and they suspect it may explain why working in the soil can help alleviate depression in people, as we likely ingest or breathe the bacteria when working outdoors.
But you don’t have to be suffering from heart disease or clinical depression to benefit from gardening. “Exposure to nature and natural settings is good for people,” says Elizabeth Diehl, Editor-in-Chief of the “Journal of Therapeutic Horticulture,” published by the American Horticultural Therapy Association (AHTA). “It’s been proven to reduce stress and high blood pressure.” And Elizabeth says we shouldn’t overlook the fact that eating produce harvested from our own gardens offers health benefits as well, because organically produced foods haven’t had the natural and good-for-you bacteria in them killed by the chemical-heavy production involved in harvesting the fruits and veggies we buy at a typical grocery store.
Jean Larson, a horticultural therapist at the University of Minnesota, says that because gardening engages so many senses and muscle groups, its ability to address a variety of illnesses and promote overall good health is endless. “Thirty minutes of moderate exercise each day reduces risks of heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, and colon cancer,” she says. And gardening is an easy and fun way to get that exercise. “It’s not something you have to go to the gym for,” Jean adds. “You can go right out your backdoor.”
For busy people balancing work and family, gardening might be just the anecdote for stress, anxiety, and even depression. “Being in touch with nature is calming,” Elizabeth says. “It’s similar to being a parent because you’re nurturing something else and realizing you’re part of something bigger. Horticultural activities can put you in touch with your self-worth.”
Elizabeth notes that in Sweden and Denmark, where stress is a recognized and diagnosable problem now referred to as “exhaustion disorder,” doctors are actually referring patients to gardening programs to treat chronic stress. “I think the sensory stimulation is critical,” she says. “We are bombarded with artificial sensory stimuli throughout the day, but being in the garden is natural and gentle stimulation of the senses.”
One doesn’t have to have a big backyard or even a yard at all to practice gardening. There are a lot of flowers, vegetables, and herbs that do well in containers on an apartment balcony or on a windowsill. And one can also join a community garden or volunteer to help out a public garden.
“That basic instinct of humans to be in nature is so important,” Elizabeth says. “Many people have lost that connection and don’t even know the names of plants anymore. When we’re reconnected to nature, we feel a sense of peace.”
Looking to sign up for your own community garden?
Visit the American Community Gardening Association to find one near you!