10 Amazing Mental Health Benefits of Gardening
Sigmund Freud―the founding father of psychoanalysis said “Flowers are restful to look at. They have neither emotions nor conflicts.”
They will, however, die if you don’t take care of them.
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#1.) Gardening is contemplative
In the garden, we learn that, as in life, there are things we can do and there are things we can only nurture.
When we plant a row of seeds or bring home a seedling from the nursery, we are inspired with a new purpose and a new ambition.
Knowing that the seedlings we plant depend on us, fosters a sense of responsibility.
We commit ourselves for the duration.
The tender plants need our care and our protection. In return, we hope to receive flowers, fruits, vegetables, and greenery.
It’s a symbiotic relationship — as are all meaningful relationships.
We can’t make it grow, but we can nurture it
Like us, the seeds seem insignificant, and yet they contain life.
Where there is life there is hope.
We sow that life in the earth and we hope for a harvest.
Our patience is tested as we wait expectantly for new life to burst miraculously from the soil.
When the seed does lift its tiny outstretched arms skyward we feel the joy that brand new parents feel.
We water the garden when it is dry, weed it when it’s weedy, and cover it with blankets on frosty nights.
But we can’t stop the storms or the advancing seasons.
Its promising buds can’t be opened into a flower with our fingers. Its flower can’t be transformed into a fruit with our hands.
This is a cooperative venture.
We do our part and nature does her’s.
The seasons of life
The passing of the seasons teaches us about the circle of life. Last year’s compost becomes this year’s soil. The garden reminds us that from dust we came and to dust we shall return.
We become aware of the length — and the brevity — of life.
The flowers that bloom today will be wilted and gone to seed tomorrow.
The garden connects us with time and reminds us of eternity.
It helps us to feel the urgency of living life well in the season that we are in.
Weeds teach us to take care of problems while they are small. Neglected weeds, gone to seed — or a fruitful harvest — teach us that we reap what we sow.
We learn that after the sowing, and the watering, the weeding, and the pruning — then comes the red tomato.
#2.) Personal autonomy
The garden allows us to take responsibility for our own decisions and to reap the fruit of our own labors.
If we are diligent and attentive we hope to gather a harvest and have seed for the coming year.
The harvest may be large or it may be small; that depends on our efforts, our skill, the soil — and the weather.
As in life, there are no guarantees; only tendencies towards more or less; good or evil.
We learn to do the best we that can with what we are given.
In the process, we reap the mental health benefits of gardening.
#3.) Gardening is Meditative
In addition to providing many metaphors for life, gardening is meditative.
It can help us to empty our minds of all their clutter as we focus on the task at hand.
Our minds work together with our bodies to re-pot, dig, rake, plant, hoe, pull, pick, cut, chop and carry.
Gardening brings us into the moment.
#4.) Work-related exercise
In nurturing last year’s seed into this year’s crop we will walk, push, pull, twist, bend, stretch kneel, and lift. In addition to our head, we will use our heart, lungs, hands, feet, arms, legs, neck, and back.
If our garden is large, many of our movements will be rhythmic.
Engaging our minds and muscles together to accomplish a common goal makes us feel good.
In a world where many of us use our minds to the exclusion of our bodies or our bodies to the exclusion of our minds, we lack the harmony of mind-body-spirit that we get while gardening.
Exercising mind and body together is far more beneficial than exercising them apart. In addition, we are using muscles we missed while doing rote exercises like lifting weights or running on a treadmill.
If we have the luxury of a day in the garden we will feel the satisfaction of accomplishment, tired muscles, and a quieted mind.
We will be ready for some hygge and a good night’s sleep.
#5.) Connection with mother earth
“There’s something about getting our hands in the dirt that makes us happy.”
We’ve heard it from many people over many years.
I experience it myself.
It turns out that working in the dirt with your hands or going barefoot in the garden may be reconnecting us to planet Earth in ways we never imagined! Emerging science supports the earthing idea. The idea is that walking barefoot, or digging in the dirt with our hands, allows the transfer of Earth’s electrons from the ground into our bodies.
We may be benefiting from this connection is surprising ways. These electrons entering our bodies neutralize positively charged free radicals that cause chronic inflammation. Chronic inflammation is linked to depression.
Children and “primitive” peoples frequently go barefoot outdoors. Many of our hunting, gathering, and subsistence farming forefathers lived indoors on dirt floors.
When I think of barefoot country kids — I think of happy robust children.
I have also witnessed in my lifetime that dogs will scratch and paw until they get down to bare earth before settling in for the night. They even exhibit great frustration if they can’t make this connection.
I often wondered why sheep, in my care, would frequently choose to bed down for the night on the bare ground, rather than on surfaces bedded with straw.
Could it be that there is something to this crazy earthing idea?
Getting my hands into the garden’s soil tells me it may be so.
#6.) Connection with the soil
Our organic gardens host a community of microbes just like our bodies do. Not only do gardens grow beautiful flowers, they grow a host of microscopic flora.
It is almost certain that the microscopic flora of our gardens interacts with the natural floras of our bodies. The microbiome in our intestinal lumen is widely believed to have a direct effect on our minds.
Of the thousands of organisms living in the soil, one called Mycobacterium vaccae has been inadvertently identified by science as providing possible mental health benefits.
It was observed in 2004 that cancer patients treated with Mycobacterium vaccae, for other reasons, reported improved emotional health.
A follow-up study to this observation was done in mice. A test group of unsuspecting mice were fed Mycobacterium vaccae in peanut butter sandwiches.
The mice with the Mycobacterium vaccae peanut butter sandwiches got through a maze much faster and with less stress than those who did not receive the naturally occurring bacterium.
(Serotonin is widely believed to play a role in mood disorders like depression.)
A third study has indicated that mice exposed to the bacterium have an increased resilience to stress.
Finally, a fourth study was launched in August of 2016, at the Denver VA Hospital to study the effects of a different bacterium called Lactobacillus reuteri on mental health. It is hoped that these treatments will be useful in treating Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The results of this study should be available soon.
Perhaps, there is a direct biological link between the garden’s soil and our mental health.
Along with earthing, the mental health benefits of the microbiota around us, and within us, are no longer considered science fiction.
#7.) Connection with ourselves and our family
The garden is an environment in which the whole family can work together to achieve a common goal.
This is so lacking and so vital to healthy families!
In our hunting, gathering, and substance farming past, this kind of family and tribal interaction were central to survival. We have a built-in need for cooperation within a social unit, traditionally called — family.
We benefit mentally and socially from these cooperative opportunities. One place these opportunities are still available is in the garden.
On the other hand, the garden is a great place to be alone, when that is what we need.
#8.) The sunshine vitamin and fresh air
Vitamin D deficiency is common and is linked to depression. Getting reasonable amounts of exposure to sunlight (not sunburn!) while working in the garden with bare arms and legs two or three times a week is considered healthy It is a natural way to boost our vitamin D levels.
There is a risk of getting too much sun exposure. Personally, I get as much sun as I can — without sunburn — because I spend too much time indoors. I avoid sunscreen but use a hat with a visor to protect my eyes and face.
We were created to live outdoors in the daylight hours; we were made for the garden.
However, sudden large doses of sunshine are not natural and are not a good idea.
I would try to cover up in extreme conditions like being on a reflective beach, or on the water on a sunny summer afternoon.
#9.) Sensory stimulation
Birdsong, breeze, earth, sun, sky, plants, and animals all stimulate us in ways we do not experience indoors or at a computer screen.
Nasa astronauts experience what is called sensory monotony. I think many of us experience sensory monotony in our modern, daily lives.
Our five senses and many bodily functions are underused and understimulated.
Astronauts are experimenting with growing gardens in space, in part, to counteract this sensory monotony. Astronaut Peggy Whitson wrote home, “It was surprising to me how great soybean plants looked [growing in space],” and “I think it’s interesting that the reaction was as dramatic as it was.”
Spending time in our gardens can help to alleviate our 21st-century, sensory monotony.
These a some of the amazing mental health benefits of gardening. Here is a meta-analysis of many scientific studies that confirm what we have suspected: gardening can improve our physical, psychological, and social health.
#10.) That big, red, juicy, vine-ripened tomato
Talk about sensory stimulation! We anxiously wait for that first tomato.
If we have a garden space, even a few pots on a patio, we can reap many of the mental health benefits of gardening — today!
In so doing, we hope for an abundant harvest.
Now, get outside and dig in the dirt.
I’m on my way!
Before you go!
Here’s a fun 55-second home video of my grandkids “connecting” in the garden in 2013.
Helping Grandma in the Garden
Speaking of Mycobacterium vaccae and the natural flora in the garden’s soil:
Bonus Material: Harrowing Our Country Garden With an Ox in 2011
No opportunity for gardening right now?
You might enjoy: Bird Songs in the English Countryside
You can enjoy some of the benefits of working in the garden just by picturing yourself there.
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