The Healing Power Of Gardening
In January of 2019, the NHS released its new Long Term Plan for the future. It detailed how they plan to tackle the ever increasing pressure on the staff by redesigning patient care. It emphasised a commitment to provide people with better control and independence over their own health.
The plan suggests that through social prescribing, GP’s and other healthcare providers will be able to prescribe community gardening for both physical and emotional purposes.
Throughout the lockdowns, I have felt an increasing desire to connect with nature. In the summer of 2020 I bought my first houseplant. I am now a mum to around 20 houseplants, but my desire to connect with nature has not ceased and I find myself longing to take my newfound love of plants to the outside.
What is the link between gardening and mental health?
It is being increasingly acknowledged that being in nature can have huge impacts on wellbeing and mental health. Studies have demonstrated that regular time in green spaces can improve mental wellbeing and cognitive development in both children and older adults with dementia.
However, what can gardening do for you?
A study published last month examined UK home gardeners. Over 5000 home gardeners responded to a questionnaire about their gardening habits, and their health and wellbeing. The study showed an improvement in perceived stress, well-being and physical activity.
Interestingly the study also noted that while the act of gardening alone increased wellbeing, more frequent gardening and higher amounts of vegetation were associated with higher well-being scores.
Gardening has the ability to reduce depression and anxiety symptoms and mood disturbances. It can also improve quality of life, sense of community, physical activity and cognition. In recent years, horticultural therapies have demonstrated incredible potential in alleviating a variety of health issues. However, it has been noted that HT can be unstandardised making it difficult to compare studies.
Horticultural therapy seems to be especially impactful for older generations. The world is constantly looking for more effective ways to make ageing a more comfortable process (and a less costly one). A study from 2017 concluded that HT has “tremendous potential for supporting future successful ageing programs.” They found that cognitive, mental and physical health improved after weekly one hour sessions for three months. Another study demonstrated that HT reduced cortisol levels (the stress hormone) in elderly Korean people with mental health problems. Furthermore it significantly improved their physical fitness scores, measured before and after the 10-week programme.
Why Does Gardening Help Mental Health?
Gardening connects us with the natural world
According to gardeners, gardening can be therapeutic in the way it connects us to the outside world. This can be both through the act of gardening and through the interaction with nature.
“I can just stand around just looking, just looking at things you know?’ (Cited)
“Gardening makes me feel alive and gets me back in touch with the earth” (Cited)
Nature can allow us space from the everyday and the mundane. It can also help us to be more mindful. While it is not entirely understood yet what it is about being outdoors that improves our mood, we have probably all experienced the restorative effects and know them to be true.
Gardening brings us a sense of purpose
Gardening can provide us with purpose. The gardener is responsible for their garden and the garden cannot flourish without them. From the planting of seeds, to ensuring the conditions are correct, to the harvest, the gardener must help their garden to come to life.
“I think that for my husband it’s very good as well, because it gives him an activity” said a participant about her retired husband. The study noted this aspect was especially prominent for retirees.
Gardening, growing foods and flowers, connects us to the life cycle and helps us to contribute to it. We have control over what we grow and how it grows. In psychology, it is known that having purpose in life can improve wellbeing. Gardening can provide meaningfulness and a beautiful responsibility to keep nature alive.
Gardening can create social connections
Unfortunately, for many people, access to a garden is limited. However, there are many community gardens around the UK which allow people to come together in the growing of produce. People often cite that they enjoy the social aspect of gardening. Community gardens and allotments allow for people to socialise, help each other learn and share produce. The social aspect can be as important to the wellbeing of the gardener as the activity itself.
For many people, gardening can also represent a connection to family. Many people who garden learned about it and participated in it when they were children.
“I used to help my grandma out, so she got me started.” (Cited)
It can represent tradition or serve as a reminder of family. It can connect one to the past and encourage connection with family in the present.
Whatever the social aspect may be, whether it is through community gardens or family gardens, the importance of the social impact cannot be denied.
It is clear that there is a beneficial impact of gardening on mental health. The fact that GPs will now be able to prescribe gardening as another way to help those who are struggling is encouraging. Prescribing community gardening may work through an interaction with the garden itself, and providing people with a sense of purpose and social belonging.
So far I am absolutely loving my experience and am right at the beginning of my journey. I am excited to see what comes of my new adventure and I would encourage anyone else who might be missing the outdoors to give it a try.
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