Gardening is good for the body and the soul

February 17, 2005

Victoria County Master Gardener Intern

Humanity is exalted not because we are so far above other living creatures, but because knowing them well elevates the very concept of life.

- Edward O. Wilson, Biophilia, 1984, p. 22

Why do we garden? Today, few of us really need to garden in order to have food to eat; even organic produce is easily available at the supermarket, and may even be cheaper than growing it ourselves. Usually, we work with plants because doing so fills some other important need. It keeps us busy, allows us the long-term satisfaction of watching things grow, and provides a sense of play.

Just looking at a garden can calm and elevate the spirits. Researchers have found that viewing plants, flowers or gardens can reduce anxiety, anger, blood pressure and stress. Surgery patients get better faster if their rooms overlook a garden. Elderly nursing home patients become less passive and depressed when allowed to choose plants and have responsibility for their garden. Gardeners have always known that gardening was enjoyable; now it appears it is actually therapeutic.

Psychology and psychiatry are beginning to acknowledge the therapeutic benefits of gardening. Gardening has been found to help prevent relapses in substance abuse patients and aid treatment of brain injury. Taking care of a plant has been found to be beneficial for nursing home residents' well being. In fact, one long-term study found that being responsible for taking care of a plant was actually associated with living longer. Clearly, gardening is good for us.

What is it about gardening that is so good for us? Is it the quiet time for reflection, the pleasure of nurturing the growth of a living thing? Is it the visual beauty of flowers, the satisfaction of the harvest, or could it be the old-fashioned hard work and sweat that is healthful? One thing seems clear; it is probably not just the mental activity of gardening (that is, the thinking and planning and learning) that is most useful - direct involvement in the activity is where most benefit lies. In a recent study, Hyejin Cho of Kansas State University found that people actively involved with gardening by completing projects like indoor landscaping had better interactions with peers, and experienced more positive emotions than did those who simply heard lectures about gardening. So planning your garden, dreaming over seed catalogs, and talking with other gardeners may be fun, but getting your hands dirty is where more of the psychological benefit lies.

Researcher Hyejin Cho, in addition to examining whether hearing about gardening was as enjoyable as actually physically gardening, looked at participants' blood and saliva markers of stress to see if there was concrete evidence of the stress-relieving effects of gardening. Cho found that, indeed, there was. The hormone markers influencing the immune system were reduced for the gardening group. In other words, gardening was not just more fun, and not just better for one's happiness and relationships, but actually beneficial for the immune system.

Ecopsychologists, scientists who believe that psychological health is defined largely by the quality of our relationship with the natural world, would see the positive benefits of gardening as unsurprising. This discipline sees alienation from the natural world as a source of individual ill health and also of many social ills such as crime, pollution and loneliness. Gardening, or horticultural therapy, has been used to treat both individual problems such as Alzheimer's disease and urban problems such as drug use or neighborhood decay.

Sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson coined the term "biophilia" to describe the natural affiliation between humans and the natural environment, an inborn love of growing things that is the heritage of our evolutionary history. In other words, Wilson saw it as normal for humans to love turning a spade of dirt or nurturing a patch of herbs because our survival as a species depended on it for thousands of years. Indeed, it is only in the past several hundred years that we have been able to live apart from nature, divorced from the process of growing ourselves that which we need to thrive. It is easy to suppose we might actually be "hard-wired" for horticulture.

To look on the surface of the burgeoning scientific and clinical areas now focusing on gardening, it might seem that these discoveries are entirely novel. But, despite modern names and controlled studies, the idea that gardening can help heal the sick and bring happiness to the well is not new at all. Ancient Egyptians used a form of horticultural therapy. Benjamin Rush, signer of the Declaration of Independence and the father of American psychiatry, encouraged gardening as therapy, too. In the 1940s and 1950s, care for hospitalized veterans often included gardening therapy. We may be coming full circle to a very old aspect of what it means to be human.

When you get right down to it, what is the magical ingredient that makes gardening so psychologically healthy? While actively working in a garden is probably best, even looking at a garden eases our ills. Gardening allows quiet reflection, eases depression and puts our troubles in perspective. It allows us to think outside ourselves, enhances our ability to plan and manage, increases our patience and helps us to feel connected to the larger world. Some would say it helps us to reconnect to our own evolutionary heritage, a psychological DNA of sorts. It has direct beneficial effects on our immune system and helps us manage stress.

Most of us don't garden because of scientific evidence of its salutary effects, however. My grandfather, a grower of magnificent tomatoes and watermelons, gardened simply because it was a pleasure. While the scientist in me thinks he didn't know the half of it, the gardener in me knows he did.

Touring gardens on the upcoming Annual Garden Tour on April 30 and May 1 may ease some of your ills and stress or elevate spirits and provide calm with a recreational "state of mind " for you, your family and friends. The Victoria County master gardeners are co-sponsoring the tour not only to benefit the community in good gardening practices and educational horticulture, but also for the enjoyment of those who love to garden and be outdoors in nature. Plan now to attend; look for more information in this column and in the community regarding ticket sales and educational materials on highlighted plants in the gardens and available at the master gardener plant sale in conjunction with the tour.