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Getting to the root of gardening’s role in mental wellness



“The glory of gardening: hands in the dirt, head in the sun, heart with nature. To nurture a garden is to feed not just on the body, but the soul.”

-Alfred Austin

The notion of gardening being beneficial for health and wellness is a pretty straightforward one.  Planting and maintaining a garden promotes physical activity and increases time spent outdoors.  Growing and harvesting our own food encourages healthy eating habits by providing fruits and vegetables that are local, organic, fresh, and full of nutrients.  The list goes on.  But the therapeutic benefits of gardening clearly extend beyond physical health - the mental benefits are just a little harder to pin down. 

How, exactly, is gardening beneficial for body and soul?  Studies around the world are helping to explain how and why gardening makes us happy and may even cure depression.  In fact, the use of gardening as a tool in mental wellness and recovery can be traced back to ancient times.  Horticultural Therapy, which uses “plants, gardens, and the natural landscape to improve cognitive, physical, social, emotional, and spiritual wellbeing”, has been a widely accepted form of treatment for mental illness since the 1940s and 50s, when it was used to help rehabilitate hospitalized war veterans.

Studies worldwide have found that gardening benefits mental health by offering acalming opportunity for stress relief, and distraction fromnegative thoughts and feelings. Gardeners participating in a Community Health Centre Program in Toronto described feelingless isolated, less depressed, and proud to be contributing to their community. 

The benefits of gardening extend beyond the level of the individual: gardens benefit communities by beautifying neighbourhoods and contributing to a greater sense of community pride. The transformation of neglected space (where urban gardens are often established) to community space has also been found toincrease neighbourhood safety.

Gardening’s contributions to mental health are backed up by scientific evidence. Dopamine, a neurotransmitter that regulates the brain’s pleasure and reward centres, is released when we find, smell and pick food. This “harvest high” is believed to be anevolutionary gain from our hunter-gatherer days. It is also believed that contact with soil microorganisms triggers the release of serotonin,a feel-good chemical that strengthens our immune systems.

The role of gardening in mental wellness can be described not just socially and scientifically, but symbolically as well. Gardening is - literally and figuratively - a grounding experience. For example, planting a seed can be a symbol of starting over. Gardening provides lessons in patience, perseverance, and gratitude. Bearing witness to nature’s regeneration and the changing of the seasons can give us a fresh perspective and maybe even a new outlook, reminding us that life goes on. 

By Tobi Reid for Victory Gardens  

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