This week we celebrate Earth Day and Arbor Day, and there’s no better way to celebrate these holidays than by getting your hands dirty. Gardening engages you physically, mentally, and socially. Health benefits are numerous and you don’t need to live in the suburbs or the country to experience gardening and its benefits.
Gardening can positively impact a number of health outcomes, including:
- Reduced symptoms of depression and anxiety
- Decrease in reported stress and mood disturbances
- Decrease in BMI
- Higher reported sense of community
- Increased physical activity
- Improved cognitive function
Gardening has both immediate and long-term effects on health. For individuals with mental health conditions, horticultural therapy – using gardening as a means to facilitate dialogue and skill building – has shown promise for improving chronic and acute mental health conditions. People report feeling happier almost immediately when engaging in gardening. Over time, individuals lowered their BMI through physical activity and improved nutrition. One study identified improvements in depression, life satisfaction, and cognitive function continuing for 3 months after therapy.
Earth Day and Arbor Day are great catalysts for encouraging us to spend more time in nature and trying out gardening as a hobby; but just how does gardening impact health?
Connecting with nature
Nature has been shown to be restorative to our minds, cognitively and emotionally. Spending time in nature helps improve our attention. According to researchers, nature restores our minds by attracting our attention without effort (unlike that spreadsheet you’ve been staring at). Using nature for therapy is also promising. Researchers found children with ADHD were more focused following walks in a park compared with walks in an urban setting.
Evidence also shows that even just living near green spaces – such as parks, gardens, or forests – is linked to benefits, such as:
- Reduced mental fatigue
- Lower stress
- Better protection against illness
- Overall feeling of better health
Increasing physical activity
Increased physical activity has been shown to improve physical and mental health. Sure, you could get a gym membership, but with gardening, you’re exercising in the sun. Physical activity while in the sun decreases cortisol, the stress hormone, and increases endorphins, which make us feel good (You should still protect yourself with sunblock, light clothing, and a hat).
With gardening you can choose your own level of physical activity (or your landscape will choose for you). If you want to really be active, double digging a new garden bed provides a strenuous workout. If you do not have the space for a whole bed, a few pots on the patio, balcony, or stoop works wonders as well. Consider three pots on the front stairs of a city row home. If you’re in the third floor apartment, you’ll need to walk stairs to water and weed. The tasks may not take long, but that’s more activity then if the plants weren’t there. Plus you’re likely to linger outside, which leads to the next way gardening impacts mental health – by fostering community.
Interacting with others
After you walked downstairs to water a few plants on your stoop and pull a couple of weeds, you’ll probably step back to admire your work, chat with your plants, and say hi to a neighbor walking a dog. You may get to chatting, find some things in common, and maybe even grab a coffee together. Trips to the garden center also create the opportunity to meet new people and chat about plants.
What’s more, gardening can lead to many enhancements to your community as a whole. Backyard farmers can donate extra crops to food banks (Find local food banks and collection days at Ample Harvest). In Philadelphia, PHS oversees Roots to Re-entry and City Harvest, programs that create hope and opportunity for prisoners and citizens returning to their communities.
- Improve relationships among neighbors,
- Increase community pride,
- Serve as a catalyst for other community improvements and mobilization.
- Reduce social isolation,
- Create places for positive social interaction,
- Serve as meeting places.
The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society (PHS) – who has been cleaning and maintaining vacant lots in Philadelphia for years – studied neighborhoods around their pocket parks and saw reductions in gun assaults, vandalism, disorderly conduct, and illegal dumping.
Many gardeners grow their own fresh fruits or vegetables, and people who eat diets high in whole foods like fruits and vegetables are up to 35% less likely to develop depression than people who eat less of these foods, according to Mental Health America.
Not only can the quality of your food improve when you’re growing it yourself, but it can also be a money saver. Instead of buying a bag or head of lettuce for a dollar or two, you can buy a tray of six plants or a pack of 200 seeds for two dollars.
So get out there and garden!
Gardening at home or in the community can improve both your physical and mental health. When you’re stressed or tired, being outside tending to your plants may be the best medicine. Need a workout? Skip the gym and pick up a shovel. If you’re looking for fresh food, go out and pick it yourself. And don’t forget to share with your neighbors.
Author: Dave Monico, MPH