For committed gardeners, going outside and putting on gloves in preparation to dig can be enough to make their spirits rise. However, research suggests it’s more than just joy to work in your garden again that can offer a mood boost.
What is Horticultural Therapy?
The Therapeutic Landscapes Network defines horticultural therapy as the use of plants, gardens, and other aspects of nature to improve people’s social, spiritual, physical and emotional well-being. Horticultural therapy covers a wide range of options, from working in community gardens to simply spending time outside. However, it appears that to attain the full benefits of horticultural therapy, it’s necessary to get your hands dirty.
Research suggests that horticultural therapy can:
- Improve memory and reduce risk of dementia
- Help with depression
- Reduce need for medication and speed recovery
- Build a sense of community and decrease isolation
- Be an alternative to traditional physical therapy
How Greens Help
Color therapy uses green to help promote feelings of calm and well-being. In many religions and spiritual practices, green is considered the color of life and healing. Incorporating elements of nature into work spaces is an innovative practice, right up there with opening up office spaces and adding warm lighting.
Psychologists Rachel and Stephen Kaplan specialize in what they refer to as “restorative environments.” Both emphasize the importance of nature in environments to refresh and rejuvenate. Rebecca A. Clay quoted Stephen Kaplan in her April 2001 article “Green is Good for You” on the American Psychologists’ Association web site: “Directed attention fatigues people through overuse.” The color green—especially via nature—allows the mind to relax. Gardening is a mentally restful task—occasionally repetitive, but not requiring a great deal of directed attention. Rather than staying focused, you can allow your mind to wander. Nature feeds the imagination.
The Physical Benefits of Gardening
Gardening reduces stress and reduces production of cortisol, a hormone involved in stress response. It can even help immune health, by exposing the immune system to harmless bacteria which trigger an immune response, thereby strengthening the immune system, a bit like a vaccine. (It’s been theorized that it was the exposure to dirt and potential allergens in East Berlin that contributed to the fact that children in East Berlin had fewer allergies than those in cleaner West Berlin, before the Berlin Wall came down.) In one case, that immune response also produces serotonin.
Gardening is also a mild form of exercise, with twisting, bending, and lifting motions. If those activities could be potentially painful, a wide variety of accessibility tools, such as ergonomic tools and kneelers, are available in a wide range of prices.
Mental Health Benefits
A 2012 NPR article cited studies that found that horticultural therapy helped people in various programs across the United States to better cope with stress and personal problems and boosted self-esteem, providing a meaningful activity that also builds a sense of community among people who would otherwise become isolated.
Even with a backyard that isn’t big enough or fertile enough to support a garden, even with no prior knowledge of gardening, you can get involved with gardening by finding a local community garden.
To learn more about horticultural therapy and therapeutic gardens, visit the American Community Garden Association web site, the American Horticultural Therapy Association web site, or the Therapeutic Landscapes Network web site.