Many passersby tell me how much they enjoy seeing my gardens. I am very happy that others can find some joy in my gardens but none can reap as many benefits as I do from my gardening. People may garden for a variety of reasons; some like to produce fruits or vegetables, some like to grow flowers and some like to create a green oasis in an urban setting. But all gardeners will probably tell you that the gardening experience provides many benefits beyond what they actually grow in the garden.
The idea of nature affecting our well-being goes back to ancient times. Biblically life began in a garden and in 500 BC the Persians planted lush gardens to please the senses with beauty, fragrance, cooling temperatures and movement. Research confirms that there are health benefits from connecting with plants; seeing, planting, growing and caring for them. In 1798 Dr. Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, documented the improvements found in his mentally ill patients who were working in the gardens, over and above those who were not. The US Veterans Administration used gardening for physical and occupational therapy for GIs returning after World War II, and in the 1970s and 1980s the concept of nature improving human health and well-being began to grow. Research by Roger Ulrich in 1984 showed that patients who could view trees from their rooms had shorter hospital stays and needed less medication.
Empirical research shows many benefits to a connection with nature, plants and gardening in many areas of our wellbeing. Physically, gardening can improve strength, stamina and mobility, while increasing energy and endurance and improving eye/hand coordination. Being outside and gardening increases social interaction and improves coping skills, improves concentration and the ability to focus, exercises the memory, promotes positive thinking, improves problem solving and planning, and can teach new skills and be used for job training. The Minnesota Conservation Corps is an organization whose goals are to help young people from diverse backgrounds become more connected to the environment, engaged in conservation, involved in the community and prepared for future employment.
Psychologically, gardening contributes greatly to an improved sense of wellbeing. It is proven to reduce stress, anxiety and tension and there are verifiable physiological reasons for this. Bacteria in the soil increase serotonin in the brain which relieves depression and because these bacteria are more present in the soil surrounding plant roots, gardeners have more exposure to them. Working in a garden also reduces cortisol, the ‘stress hormone’ which leads to an improved sense of calm and wellbeing.
Plants and gardens also stimulate all of our senses. We can see color, textures, patterns and movement of plants, butterflies and birds. We can hear birds chirping, sounds made by tree branches, grasses and perhaps wind chimes that are moved by the air. If we are fortunate enough to have a water feature in our garden the sound of running water can be very soothing. It is known that the smell of lavender releases hormones that make us happy and that the smell of roses can actually reduce blood pressure. Research has shown that a walk through a pine forest can significantly reduce depression and stress levels. Indulge your sense of touch in the garden by rubbing your hands over foliage which can produce an unconscious calming effect. Rub the leaves of herbs between your fingers and smell the tantalizing aromas. And of course we can taste our gardens enjoying the fruits, vegetables, herbs and even edible flowers.
The benefits of plants, while most widely enjoyed in nature, are not limited to the outdoors. Indoor plants greatly improve the air quality in your home and/or work place, and research shows that they also improve efficiency and mood! And green plants may also calm traffic; studies show that people drive slower on roads that are lined with green plants rather than hard surfaces.
So there are many benefits to gardening beyond the vegetables and flowers we reap from our gardens. Take advantage of the next couple months. Go outside, dig in the dirt and be happy!