Planting health: Therapeutic benefits of gardening


Growing your own food has obvious benefits: good flavorful produce, a connection to the land, etc. But did you know there are also therapeutic benefits of gardening?

Photo by Linda Coan O’Kresik

It is no secret that gardening is good for your health. By growing your own food, you ensure access to healthy, locally grown options free of pesticides and other chemicals (as long as you don’t use them). Gardening is also a work out, classified by the Center for Disease Control as a moderately intense physical activity that can help reduce the risk of obesity, high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke.

But did you know that gardening can have mental health benefits, too?

A 2010 study showed that patients with clinical depression in who participated in routine gardening activities experienced a reduced depression and increased attention capacity that lasted months after the program ended. A 2006 study showed that gardening on a daily basis reduced dementia risk factors by 36 percent.

“It’s calming because it involves all of your senses,” said Erin Backus, president of the Northeast Horticultural Therapy Network, who works using gardening as a therapeutic tool at psychiatric hospitals and transitional living programs. “Basically helps to give your brain a break.”

The connection that gardening provides with the natural world is the source of many of its mental health benefits. A 2010 study shows that 30 minutes of gardening decreases more stress than 30 minutes of indoor reading. Mycobacterium vaccae, a bacterium in soil, has also been found to trigger the release of serotonin, which in turn improves mood and possibly even brain function in both cancer patients and mice.

“Nature works,” said Matthew Wichrowski, editor of the Journal of Therapeutic Horticulture put out by the American Horticultural Therapy Association. “It’s been found to be very therapeutic.”

Part of the mental health benefit also comes from the physical activity associated gardening. Exercise releases endorphins that help mitigate the effects of depression and anxiety.

“When you get out and weed and dig, those large muscle movements, especially with the digging, release those endorphins in your brain,”  said Christine Capra, program manager at the Horticultural Therapy Institute. “That part of the gardening is beneficial in that way.”

The positive mental health impacts of gardening have led to a rise in the popularity of horticultural therapy, a guided practice of using gardening to help manage mental health issues.

“[Gardening] is something very real, so that’s motivating,” Capra said. “You’re using the modality of growing plants to somehow better the life of that client.”

A 2014 review of horticultural therapy research concluded that although the existing research is insufficient to say anything definitive about the mental health benefits of gardening, horticultural therapy may be an effective treatment for mental and behavioral disorders such as dementia, schizophrenia, depression and terminal-care for cancer.

The benefits could be anything from giving more self-esteem and more confidence to a sense of peace and clarity,” Capra said. “Gardening shows the whole process shows you a lifecycle from its beginning. There are a whole lot of metaphors for that growth in the mental health setting that become a way to heal.”

Even if you do not have access to a horticultural therapist, these experts have some tips on how to maximize the benefit of gardening to your mental health. “I think it’s about consistency,” Capra said. She recommends maintaining regularity in your gardening habit — for both the health of your plants, but also so you can reap the mental health benefits.

Focusing on the task at hand can also help to maximize the centering effect of gardening. “I encourage people to try to stay present in the moment,” Backus said. “That skill can be challenging sometimes. Focus your senses, take a deep breath, and stay present.”

  1. Wayne Roberts PhD says

    Thanks for this article. It’s very well researched. I think it’s really important to address the mental health benefits of gardening, especially for children, and especially during school time. In my opinion, gardening should be appreciated as a therapy, every bit as much as food production. It should be encouraged and even subsidized as a method of reducing the enormous costs of hospital and professional treatment that may not be required if we didn’t always overlook the potential of interventions such as gardening.

    1. Sam Schipani says

      Thanks for your comment, Wayne! Gardening can definitely have mental health benefits for children, too. It would be interesting to see subsidies for horticultural therapy as well. We will definitely keep an eye out for any programs like that!

  2. Kathleen Martinez says

    I totally agree with you that gardening does indeed have a very positive effect on one’s mental health. My parents and my ex husband’s parents all had gardens and I remember how relaxing it was for me just to watch them tending to their gardens. I recently had four stents put into my heart after having a major heart attack. In fact, I had the experience of actually crossing over and having an out of body experience. Now I am having a whole different outlook on a lot of issues in life. Being able to make the time for appreciating the simple things in life more so now than ever! Gardening has put me on a schedule with nature (so to speak) to where I am seeing the positive side effects of having a set routine for myself to tending to my garden like me watering the plants. The summer temperatures are 101 degrees with 115 heat indexes and the sun is scorching and relentless here so I am tending to my garden quite frequently lately. So it gives me a steady routine to follow which, for me, helps to give me a purpose to include in my life.

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  4. Kate Hansen says

    It was super helpful when you mentioned that gardening can reduce depression. I’ve struggled with depression for a couple of years now and was wanting to know what activities I could do that could help me feel any better. I’ll have to look into starting a garden sometime soon.

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