“In the spring, at the end of the day, you should smell like dirt.”
~ Margaret Atwood
As Georgetowners delight in the buds of May, brightly-colored flower boxes and baskets, and the arrival of the Georgetown Garden Tour, it’s time to reap the myriad health benefits of tilling, pruning and taking joy in our gardens.
Seasoned gardeners have long understood the physical, mental and spiritual health benefits sowed from devoted attention to cultivating the beauties of their garden spaces. But for those who don’t think they have a “green thumb,” this may be the time to take up potting, planting or visiting garden spaces, simply for the powerful health payoffs scientific researchers have identified for those who stop and smell the gardenias.
A Chinese proverb holds that “Life begins the day you start a garden.” But, there’s no need to feel intimidated by the practice. You can always start small with easy houseplants such as low-water shade plants and succulents, work your way up to potting outdoor plants and flowers needing more attention, and then start experimenting with planting-in more ambitious flower beds, fruits, vegetables, bushes or trees in your outdoor spaces. Just remember, the results are always unpredictable. “The biggest obstacle to good gardening is the desire to know the answers and not the questions,” said English master gardener Monty Don.
And what are the vaunted health benefits of getting “soily” in the garden?
Professor Charles Hall of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Texas A&M has “done extensive research on how plants and gardening can improve both physical and mental health.” In an article published in the Journal of Environmental Horticulture, he outlined the benefits, including: “attention deficit recovery, decreased depression, enhanced memory retention, improved happiness and life satisfaction, mitigation of PTSD, increased creativity, productivity and attention, reduced effects of dementia, and enhanced self-esteem.”
In “Why Gardening Makes You Happy and Cures Depression,” published by the Permaculture College of Australia, Robyn Francis cited recent research explaining how immersing one’s self in garden soils can help relieve stress and anxiety and alleviate depressive illness. Such benefits accrue by means of “key environmental triggers for two important chemicals that boost our immune system and keep us happy – serotonin and dopamine,” he wrote. “Getting your hands dirty in the garden can increase your serotonin levels – contact with soil and a specific soil bacteria, Mycobacterium vaccae, triggers the release of serotonin in our brain…. Serotonin is a happy chemical, a natural anti-depressant and strengthens the immune system.”
Studies for the British National Health Service (NHS) – and if anyone understands gardening, it’s the British – have found that there’s “increasing evidence that exposure to plants and green space, and particularly to gardening, is beneficial to mental and physical health.” Their clinical trials revealed the “beneficial effects on mood and mental health of simply observing nature, or even images of natural scenes,” leading them to recommend “holistic therapies” to patients suffering from physical and mental diseases by exposure to plants and gardening. According to the study, previous research indicates that gardening “increases [an] individual’s life satisfaction, vigor, psychological wellbeing, positive affects, sense of community, and cognitive function. Reductions in stress, anger, fatigue, and depression and anxiety symptoms have also been documented.”
The therapeutic effects of gardening have been shown to have “beneficial effects on stress, especially if the spaces support biodiversity,” and have “been used in hospitals for thousands of years,” the NIH study said. In the 19th century, Florence Nightingale supported their therapeutic use. In a Japanese study cited by the NHA, “viewing plants altered EEG recordings and reduced stress, fear, anger and sadness, as well as reducing blood pressure, pulse rate and muscle tension.”
In a 2022 article entitled “Dig into the Benefits of Gardening,” the Mayo Clinic stressed the health benefits of gardening exercise or “functional movement” dimensions, impacts on calorie burning, balance, strength and flexibility. “People tend to breathe deeper when outside,” the report said. “This helps to clear out the lungs, improve digestion, improve immune response and increases oxygen levels in the blood.” Spending time outdoors has also been shown to “reduce heart rate and muscle tension. Sunlight lowers blood pressure and increases vitamin D levels.” Increased social connectivity from gardening also plays a positive role in mental health.
And, of course, we all know that if we grow our own foods we tend to eat a healthier diet, that plants absorb carbon from the atmosphere and produce more oxygen for us to breath and that planting helps boost biodiversity in the natural world.
So, maybe it’s time to put on your gardening clothes, gather your gardening gear, and take the plunge into that healthful garden soil?