The Mental Health Benefits of Gardening

Today’s post was written by Jason Kaefer, a case manager in Caminar's New Ventures Program with years of experience in human services. He also writes extensively on the use of coping skills to support independence, mindfulness, and happiness to those struggling with mental illness. He has also contributed the posts Energize Your Diet and Tips for Identifying Depression to our blog.

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The last words my wife said to me before she left to visit her home country of Russia were: "Water three times a week, spray them three times a week, and fertilize once a week." Easy enough. Her balcony garden had grown from a few measly planter pots to a thriving ecosystem in the last year, with mussel and abalone shells she had collected festooned among the Queen Anne's lace and lavender. Overhead in her ivy pot, I've discovered recently, a pair of nesting dark-eyed junco flutter to and fro.

I followed her instructions: water three times per week, spray three times a week, and fertilize once per week. I had never been much of a gardener before this and have found an enduring fulfillment in taking care of her plants, filling the watering can, and nurturing each plant as though it could look up and thank me. Something about this process increases my daily happiness.

With some research, I found this wasn't all in my head. This process of taking time each morning to tend to a garden does increase happiness, and this is strongly supported by science.

Boost in Serotonin

I was told from a young age that "dirt don't hurt," and according to a study in the UK, this is supported rather extensively. A "friendly" bacteria exists in soil that triggers an increase in serotonin. This serotonin increase not only makes you happier, but "serotonin constricts blood vessels, sends messages between cells in the brain and within the central nervous system, regulates secretion of digestive juices, and helps to control the passage of food through the gut." So, get out there and start planting away!

Sense of Accomplishment

When you raise crops, plants, or herbs, nurturing them to full optimization, you feel a sense of accomplishment. These feelings are amplified when the fruit of your labor is edible!

If you have a balcony or backyard, tomatoes can be simple to grow, provided that you have a support like a stake or wire cage. Cucumbers are also easy, as they thrive in small spaces, grow quickly, and have natural disease resistance. The job of raising vegetables can bring not only joy and sustenance but also a sense of purpose.

No outdoor space? A houseplant can help freshen the air.

Reduction in Stress

Turns out, having plants around the house can have enormous benefits for mental health. A study found that when plants were added to an interior space, people were more productive, less stressed, and more attentive.

But before rushing off to your local nursery after reading this post, speak with your therapist and/or doctor to establish if gardening is right for you. The benefits are often plentiful, but you need to make sure it fits in with your life.