Before you head out to your patio, balcony, terrace, or just to the windowsill to tend to your delicious veg, you might like to know that according to an increasing body of research your gardening efforts are doing more than beautifying the city: they may actually be making you happier and healthier. Some green-fingered brethren will already attest to this, but what do you think?
Researchers have found that smelling roses and pulling up weeds, for example, can lower blood pressure, increase brain activity and produce a general happy feeling. Even just looking at a garden can give you a positive boost. The evidence has been given its own name - horticultural therapy - and is being used to treat hospital patients. Horticultural therapists say gardens produce the most positive effects on mental health. Cynics among you – and I’m often one – might now be saying, “Of course they’d say that, it means more work for them.” So let’s look into this a little further…
Stress Relief and Happiness
Cortisol is often referred to as the stress hormone, and when released will increase anxiety, among other sensations. So the research suggests that the sights, smells, and feelings of the garden can lower the level of cortisol. Okay, that is a fairly easy thing to measure, and lends credibility to the horticultural therapist’s claims.
But why does it reduce stress? I’ll try and paraphrase my understanding of the research: we’re so busy all of the time, lost in our dirt-free lives. We’re consumed with dings, rings, and notifications from our texts, emails, and social media accounts. The sensory experience of gardening connects us with our primal state and the ability to grow life-sustaining food strengthens feelings of self-sufficiency.
Personally, any small amount of control and agency I can wrest back in my life makes me feel good and is worth trying.
The next claim is not one to spend much time on, as it’s rather obvious: gardening provides better nutrition. The food you grow yourself is the freshest food you can eat. And because home gardens are filled with fruits and vegetables, it's also among the healthiest food you can eat. Not to mention that homegrown produce simply tastes better. It's incomparably more delicious to eat something that's fresh, so you’re going to want to eat more of it.
The next claim is also logical but one dear to my heart: when I’m active it’s the best way of combatting the blues or lethargy.
Gardening is the perfect remedy to the modern world. With many people now sat at a desk all day, there's something about putting your hands in the dirt (or water for hydroponic folk!), digging and actually creating something from nothing. If you have an outside garden, it gets you out in the fresh air and sunshine, and it also gets your blood moving.
There are lots of different movements in gardening, so you get some exercise benefits out of it as well. It’s no marathon, but digging, planting, weeding, and other repetitive tasks that require strength or stretching are decent forms of low-impact exercise. This exercise is one you are more likely to stick with and do often. When you have plants that rely on your care, you don’t neglect them like you might do to the gym. Salient perhaps in this month of New Year resolutions and gym memberships, where many pay to be shouted at by a sadist in a leotard.
As hobbies go, gardening is a healthy one and not just for our stomachs. I know we’re bombarded with images of wonderfully carefree and cool people attached to GoPro’s jumping off things and moving fast down other things, but in between the base-jumping and powder snow-boarding that I’m sure fills all of your lives, gardening provides a more sedate and gentrified hobby, and doesn’t even require those hipster hobby essentials: an excessive knowledge of coffee and beard balm.
In conclusion, the argument that improved nutrition, relaxation and gentle exercise leads to better mental health doesn't require a visit to a horticultural therapist, it’s just common sense! I am not suggesting that if you’re experiencing a serious mental health issue that growing a few cucumbers will solve it, but for those of us who can inhabit a spectrum of stress, anxiety, depression and alike, it doesn’t hurt to try…